SEA ISLE CITY — A federal judge will let two parents pursue claims against emergency workers who allegedly failed to provide life-saving help to their daughter, Tracy Hottenstein, the morning she died.
Hottenstein, 35, a marathon runner and pharmaceutical saleswoman from Conshohocken, Pa., was in town Feb. 15, 2009, for the annual Polar Bear Plunge. The charitable event attracts more than 35,000 people each winter.
After having dinner with friends on the island, Hottenstein went to a Sea Isle bar, where security cameras recorded her leaving with another friend at about 2:15 a.m. She was found more than five hours later by a fisherman — lying on her back along the muddy banks of the 42nd Place bay a short distance from the bar.
In court papers, parents Charles and Elizabeth Hottenstein say police, medics and the doctor who made the death pronouncement should have made an effort to resuscitate their daughter, who died from hypothermia, an autopsy shows.
“From the get-go, I’ve said there is plenty of blame to go around,” the family’s lawyer, Lynanne B. Wescott, said Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph E. Irenas last week dismissed claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress against AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and the AtlantiCare MICU medics who responded to the Sea Isle City Marina on Feb. 15, 2009.
The judge also dismissed similar claims against the doctor who pronounced Hottenstein dead by phone at 8:22 a.m. But the judge allowed complaints of wrongful death and negligence, among others, to proceed.
“The family has this belief that she may still have been alive that morning. First responders believed unequivocally that she had died,” Sea Isle City Solicitor Paul Baldini Jr. said. “I have no doubt in my mind that the first responders in Sea Isle would do anything and everything to save someone.”
In their motion to dismiss the case, lawyers for Dr. Zaki Khebzou’s said the doctor did what was necessary to determine Hottenstein had died.
“The medics in conjunction with Dr. Khebzou made decisions regarding what treatment modalities the patient required under the circumstances,” the motion said. “Based upon the observations of the medics it was determined that the patient should be pronounced dead and no CPR or pre-hospital care should be rendered at that time.”
First responders in court papers argued they were immune from civil liability because of the Good Samaritan Act and qualified for immunity given for acts or omissions to act while rendering emergency life-support services.
But the family argued that neither was pertinent to Hottenstein’s death.
The Good Samaritan Act provides immunity for volunteers “who in good faith render emergency care at the scene of an accident or emergency.” The family said the first responders failed to provide any care so were not covered by any immunity given for life-saving efforts.
Sea Isle City’s co-counsel Jim Birchmeier said the death was a tragic accident, but one that police and medics could not have prevented.
“There is no evidence Ms. Hottenstein was alive when the first responders, including Sea Isle police, came to the scene,” he said.
The police officer who first came to Hottenstein’s aid, defendant Sgt. Harold Boyer, is a trained emergency-medical technician, Birchmeier said.
“We’re not just talking about a lack of a pulse. There were other signs,” he said. “It’s a tragedy all the way around.”
According to court papers, Sea Isle police would not permit anyone, including medics, to approach Tracy. Birchmeier said when police determined Hottenstein had died, their priority became preserving a potential crime scene.
For more than a year after her death, friends and police posted fliers around Sea Isle trying to find witnesses who could fill in the last hours of her life. Baldini said he does not think anyone will get a satisfactory explanation about what happened that early morning.
“The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office did an extremely thorough investigation. I don’t know if we’re going to come up with any more facts in this case,” he said.
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