The family of Tracy Hottenstein can continue in their wrongful death lawsuit aimed at emergency responders who may have prematurely pronounced her dead, as well as a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor who made the official pronouncement, personal injury attorneys in New Jersey say. U.S District Judge Joseph Irenas dismissed several counts in the family’s lawsuit, but found compelling evidence that the first responders and the doctor did not handle the examination properly, potentially preventing Hottenstein from receiving medical care that could have saved her life.
Hottenstein, 35, had been drinking after the 2009 Polar Bear Plunge event in Sea Isle City, and left the nearby Ocean Drive bar early in the morning. She apparently fell from a public dock near the bar into the Atlantic, and her body was spotted hours later in the water near the city marina. The first officers to respond were unable to find a pulse, and reported that she was cold and did not appear to be breathing. They concluded that Hottenstein was dead, and treated the area as a crime scene.
The police officers who handled the ensuing examination eventually allowed a paramedic from Atlanticare Regional Medical Center through the crime scene tape to examine Hottenstein. The paramedic relayed information to Dr. Zaki Khebzou, a physician from Atlantic Emergency Associates (AEA), over the phone. Dr. Khebzou officially pronounced Hottenstein dead at 8:22 a.m., nearly a half hour after the first responders had found her.
An expert consulted on the case speculated that Hottenstein might not have been dead when she was originally pulled out of the water, citing cases where extreme hypothermia presents symptoms similar to death. He contended that the responders should have given the woman immediate medical attention before concluding that there was nothing more to be done to save her life.
In his decision, Irenas noted that doctors who make a death pronouncement outside of a hospital are required to obtain, if possible, the results of a telemetered electrocardiogram from the paramedic or other medical personnel. Dr. Khebzou stated that he was aware of this requirement, but did not have the necessary examination results when he declared Hottenstein dead over the phone. Without seeing those results, Dr. Khebzou may have prematurely issued a time of death, and prevented potentially life-saving treatment.
In addition to the malpractice suit against Dr. Khebzou and the wrongful death suit against the first responders, Irenas is allowing the family to continue claims of various liability issues against AEA. Also, the family is pursuing punitive damages against Dr. Khebzou and the officers, for roping off Hottenstein’s body as their crime scene after determining that she was dead, without an official pronouncement of death. Personal injury attorneys in New Jersey say that the case will now examine whether responders followed the proper procedures, and what should have been done upon initially discovering Hottenstein floating in the Atlantic.
At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our personal injury lawyers represent families who have suffered the traumatic, and possibly preventable, loss of a loved one.