Judge grants summary judgment to City of Phila., cops in case brought by dead girl's mother

By Jon Campisi | Nov 21, 2013

A federal judge has granted a defense motion for summary judgment in a case brought by the mother of a teenager who claims her daughter died because Philadelphia police prevented the plaintiff from taking the girl for medical care.

Lizette Vargas was suing the City of Philadelphia and Police Officers Keith White and Matthew Blaszczyk over the Aug. 26, 2009, death of her daughter, Tabitha Gonzalez, which came seven days after the girl suffered an asthma attack that led to her developing a severe brain injury.

Vargas claimed that the two cops prevented her and others from transporting Tabitha to nearby Temple University Hospital for emergency care, thereby fatally delaying the girl access to crucial medical treatment.

According to the complaint, Gonzalez began suffering from an asthma attack while at home in North Philadelphia on Aug. 19, 2005, after which Vargas found the teen lying on the sidewalk in front of their house.

Four people ended up placing Gonzalez into the back seat of a vehicle with the intention of driving her to the emergency room, while Vargas and a niece simultaneously placed 911 calls making authorities aware of the emergency, the lawsuit stated.

The two defendant officers, however, were never made aware that the calls stemmed from a medical emergency.

In her suit, Vargas claimed that the two police officers, once they arrived on the scene, blocked her vehicle from moving, causing the daughter’s condition to worsen in the process.

The police officers counter-argued that they were not blocking any vehicles from pulling onto the street of the plaintiff’s residence, the record shows.

The cops further claimed that Gonzalez, the teenager, was lying on the sidewalk at the time they arrived at the home.

Defendant White had said he urged the plaintiff and those helping her to wait at the scene for the ambulance, which was arriving at that very moment.

Both officers asserted that they never prevented anyone from taking the girl to the hospital.

At the same time, the cops acknowledged that at no time that night did they have a reasonable suspicion that there was any criminal activity taking place at the location.

Emergency workers were able to transport the girl to the hospital, but she succumbed to her injuries a week later, the record shows.

In her suit, Vargas claimed that the defendants violated both her and Gonzalez’s constitutional rights to be free from unlawful seizure and physical restraint.

The complaint also accused the city of failing to properly train its officers in situations dealing with family members experiencing emergency medical issues.

In his Nov. 18 memorandum, U.S. District Judge Thomas O’Neill, Jr. determined that Gonzalez was not seized because, in her unconscious state, she was “incapable of submitting to any show of authority.”

The judge refused to discuss whether Vargas has standing to assert her daughter’s right to be free from an unlawful seizure, and he ruled that the officers’ lack of an affirmative response to Gonzalez’s emergency does not violate does not violate the plaintiff’s due process rights.

Furthermore, the plaintiff’s allegation that the officers’ actions in preventing her from transporting her daughter to the hospital created the opportunity for the teen’s anoxic brain injury and subsequent death to occur did not pass judicial muster.

Citing a medical expert’s report, O’Neill said that the girl’s death was caused by the exacerbation of her underlying medical condition from a possible “wide variety of sources.

“The anoxic brain injury and death that Gonzalez suffered was not the direct result of the officers’ actions that plaintiff claims delayed her family from transporting her to the hospital,” the judge wrote.

In addition to granting summary judgment to the officers, the judge also granted the city’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Vargas failed to satisfy the elements required for a municipal liability claim.

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