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Mother's Suit Links Death to 911 Call

MURRAY, Neb. -- Heather Mattern battled cystic fibrosis and diabetes most of her life, but her family never expected the 21-year-old woman to die after an emergency call to her house.

"Everything that morning started out easygoing," said her mother, Cynthia Morris. "I never would have imagined this would happen."

Morris recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging that emergency medical technician William Cover misused a suction device during the 911 call to Mattern's house, and that his actions resulted in the woman's death on Oct. 2, 2006.

The lawsuit names Cover and Cass County as defendants. Cover is Cass County's longtime emergency management agency director.

The lawsuit states that emergency room doctors at Midlands Hospital in Papillion discovered a 3- to 4-centimeter red cap lodged in Mattern's throat, blocking her airway, at the time of her death.

Cover is accused of failing to remove the red plastic cap from the V-Vac suction device, according to the lawsuit filed by Omaha attorney Christopher Welsh. The color helps remind rescue workers to take it off before use, he said.

The plaintiffs have asked a Cass County District Court jury to award unspecified monetary damages, including medical, funeral and burial expenses, to Mattern's family.

Mattern's family also has a lawsuit against the product manufacturer pending in U.S. District Court, Welsh said.

Lincoln lawyer Vince Valentino, who is defending Cass County and Cover, plans to argue that Mattern "was beyond being saved" at the time her mother made the 911 call.

"It obviously is a tragedy," Valentino said. "You don't expect to see people die at that young of an age. I think the evidence in this case will show this young lady apparently had a number of physical health problems prior to the call, and it's likely she was deceased before the emergency responders got to the scene of this call."

Valentino does not dispute the suction device malfunctioned in her mouth. However, that's a product liability matter, he said.

He said he plans to ask the judge to dismiss the lawsuit because Nebraska law makes first responders and emergency personnel immune from civil liability unless they engage in gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct.

As a certified emergency medical technician, Cover often provided Murray Fire and Rescue units with mutual aid assistance, Valentino said. Cover also conducts most of the field training exercises for the rural volunteer fire and rescue departments, said Cass County Board Chairman Ron Nolte of Murray.

"Bill Cover was not negligent in anything he did that day," Valentino said. "They are just looking for a deep pocket to recover some compensation."

Morris said that about two weeks before her daughter's death, Mattern was released from a hospital after a bout of pneumonia. On the morning of her death, she began coughing uncontrollably. She passed out. Her mother called 911 about 8:40 a.m.

According to the lawsuit: a Murray Fire and Rescue ambulance arrived at their house at about 9 a.m. Inside, rescue crews took over resuscitation efforts from Morris, who was performing CPR on her unconscious daughter.

While a Murray emergency medical technician began compressions, Cover connected and hooked up an automated external defibrillator, a portable electronic device that allows the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm.

Once the defibrillator began working, crews used a bag valve mask to start breathing ventilation. After five minutes, Cover ceased ventilation and called for suction, the lawsuit stated.

One of Murray's emergency medical technicians gave Cover a V-Vac suction device. Cover attempted to suction Mattern's mouth. At some point, emergency responders placed Mattern on a headboard and transported her by ambulance to Midlands Hospital.

There, an emergency room doctor found that Mattern had no blood pressure, no pulse and no respiratory rate. A doctor discovered the red plastic cap lodged in her throat, blocking her airway and causing her death, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit states that Cover should have known that failing to remove the red cap on the suction device could result in the cap blocking Mattern's airway.

Morris said the lawsuit became their only recourse to hold someone accountable for Mattern's untimely death. She hopes the lawsuit results in better training for rural rescue crews. She wants to see a shift from all-volunteer emergency responders to paid medical professionals responding to 911 calls.

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