2012-01-18 / Features

$20G Snowstorm Lawsuit Heats Up

By Liz Goff

The family of a 75-year-old woman who died while waiting for an ambulance during the 2010 Christmas Eve blizzard is moving forward with their $20 million lawsuit against the city, charging unplowed streets kept emergency responders from reaching the woman.

The legal action taken by family members in the death of Yvonne Freeman was the first blizzard-related wrongful death suit.

The lawsuit accuses Sanitation, Transportation and first responder agencies of negligence and accuses the city of failing to declare a snow emergency at the onset of the storm.

The Freeman family’s attorney, Sanford Rubinstein, said the streets were impassible and the NYPD and FDNY failed to properly maintain and update the 911 system.

Laura Freeman, daughter of the victim, said her mother woke her at 8 a.m. on December 27, 2010, complaining she was having trouble breathing. Freeman said she tried unsuccessfully at the height of the storm to reach a 911 operator as her mother struggled to breathe.

When she was unable to get through to a 911 operator for 45 minutes, Freeman called her brother and a cousin and asked them to call 911 as well. Freeman said when her mother’s condition worsened she ran outside their Corona home and started screaming at neighbors, asking them to try 911.

Emergency responders, trapped by the snow and unplowed streets, made it to the home at about 11 a.m., but it was too late. Yvonne Freeman passed away while waiting for the responders to arrive.

Freeman is scheduled to appear in court this week with her attorney, who said a summons and complaint have been filed against the city. Rubenstein said the city has filed a motion to dismiss the case on the basis of “governmental immunity”.

“We will strenuously oppose that motion,” Rubenstein said.

Legal experts said the “sovereign immunity” provision of the law is a legal concept that dates back to the English monarchy.

If a victim sought to sue the king, “the king, in effect, had to give permission for the lawsuit,” experts said.

Under current New York City law, people can only sue the city, if the city has given them permission to do so, the experts said.

In the Freeman case, the city is arguing that it never allowed itself to be sued over weather conditions, that it can control its emergency services, but it can’t control the weather, which is considered an act of God.

Following a pre-trial hearing in January 2010, Freeman told reporters she and her family intend to see the lawsuit through the system, regardless of moves made by the city to toss it out of the courts.

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