The family of an 11-year-old girl who suffered an asthma attack and died on Christmas Eve after multiple 911 calls were allegedly misrouted filed a claim Tuesday against Los Angeles County and Sheriff Jim McDonnell, seeking more than $5 million in damages.
Lawyers for the family of Ashley Flores accuse the sheriff's department of gross negligence, pointing to what they say are systemic problems in the emergency dispatch system, particularly at the Century Station.
Ashley was having trouble breathing midday last Dec. 24, and her 16-year-old sister repeatedly called 911 pleading for help, according to the claim filed on the family's behalf by attorney Dale Galipo. The calls were put on hold and then routed to an empty fire station and went unanswered, he said.
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Other family members also called, finally reaching a fire dispatcher after five tries, according to the claim.
There was "at least a 15 minute delay" in reaching paramedics and "because of that delay, Ashley died," Galipo said as he stood alongside the girl's family on the steps of the Hall of Justice.
"The deputy sheriff who was sitting at that desk...was totally inadequately trained to do that function" and had been taught to forward calls to the fire station, rather than following the correct procedure of routing them to a fire dispatcher who would reach out to the closest ambulance, Galipo alleged.
The family lives in Lynwood roughly five minutes away from St. Francis Medical Center, where a doctor told them that Ashley could have survived had she gotten help more quickly, according to the lawyer.
A sheriff's spokesman declined to comment, citing pending litigation, but pointed to a previously issued statement.
"We extend our deepest heartfelt condolences to the family on the tragic death of Ashley Flores," the statement said, noting that McDonnell reached out to the family personally. "Clearly the death of this little girl is heartbreaking. We have opened an investigation into the incident and until all the facts are clearly established through a thorough review, we will not be able to comment further."
Galipo said desk operations at the Century Station, which include handling incoming 911 calls, had failed three years of internal inspections.
"How long could it take to investigate this? Six hours, 12 hours?" Galipo asked.
He called for more transparency from the sheriff's department, which he said has not turned over any documents to the family and its lawyers.
Family members, including the 16-year-old 911 caller, said they decided to bring the claim to better understand what happened and to prevent future tragedies.
"I don't want anyone to go through what my family is going through," Dulce Flores told reporters. The teen said she felt "surprised, shocked (and) angry" about the way her pleas for help were handled as she watched her sister die in front of her.
Attorney Vicki Sarmiento, who also represents the family, questioned whether the emergency response might have been faster in a different neighborhood.
"Are they getting the same treatment as West Los Angeles, Beverly Hills?" Sarmiento asked, though she acknowledged she had no hard evidence of such a pattern of discrimination.
Filing the claim is a first step in a process that will lead to the filing of a lawsuit in federal court 45 days from now, the lawyers told reporters.
"We believe there are constitutional violations involved in what happened," Galipo said, citing an alleged "deliberate indifference to health and safety."
In its earlier statement, the sheriff's department said its own deputies and their families rely on 911 in emergency situations and it is committed to a complete review of what happened.
"It is essential that we do all we can to ensure the public trust that our emergency response system works. The lives of more than 10 million L.A. County residents depend on it."