Was EMS care of hypothermic teen negligent?

Hypothermia death of a Minn. teen is an unimaginable tragedy, but a breach is not enough for a finding of negligence


I cannot and don’t want to even try to imagine the nightmare which the family of a Minnesota teen who froze to death is going through. In the face of any grief, it is common to first try to understand and then assign blame.

A lawsuit is completely expected in the absence of any other relief, but is it proper?

EMS providers are trained that a patient is not dead until the patient is warm and dead — based on anecdotal reports of survival after prolonged exposure to severe cold. The only exceptions are for a patient with ice formation in the airway or a chest wall so frozen that compressions are not possible.

Since I don’t know any more about this case than what I read in the news story, it would be improper and unfair for me to judge or second guess the providers' actions; however, I can analyze from the information I have.

1. IF there is a policy/protocol that requires patients to be, as the news story states, "cold in a warm environment," and

2. IF no effort was made to warm and revive the patient, and

3. IF no specific information was available about the patient's down-time

Then it appears the providers committed a substantial breach of duty.

However, in the purest sense, breach is not enough for a finding of negligence. Before any or all of these providers can be held liable for negligence, the breach must have been both the actual and proximate cause of death. On the facts I have, I don’t see it.

On the other hand, in an administrative action, the breach of duty is all that is necessary to discipline the providers' license, certification or employment status.

Whether this patient could have been resuscitated will never be known, but this call and that question (I imagine) will forever haunt the providers who responded to it and will forever torment the family he left behind.

Cases like this are tragic beyond words and must likewise be a constant reminder of the immeasurable responsibility EMS providers accept. If you are going to do the job, do the whole job to complete an assessment, consult medical direction as needed and document exam findings and treatment decisions. Do the job and do it well.

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