Personal Injury

The Failure of 911

It sounds like your worst nightmare: you are in an emergency - kidnapped, carjacked, taken hostage - luckily, you manage to grab a cell phone and call 911. You have hope, you think you are on your way to safety. However, the 911 dispatcher isn't helpful, she asks you the same questions, over and over, and doesn't seem to understand the magnitude of the danger. Even worse, when witnesses see the crime and try to report it to 911, the dispatchers don't tie the events together and you, the victim, aren't saved.

Sounds unimaginable. 911 is supposed to be efficient, organized and effective. However, that does not appear to be the case. The Denise Lee story is an example of the failures of 911.

The Denise Lee Story

Denise Lee, 21 years old and mother of two, was abducted from her home in North Port, FL, in January, 2008. In the course of three hours, five separate 911 calls related to her disappearance were placed by five different people - including one by Denise herself. However, they did not contribute to her safety.

  • 3:29 p.m.- The first 911 call related to Denise's disappearance was placed by her husband, Nathan Lee, who called 911 to report his wife missing
  • 6:14 p.m. -The second call was made from Denise herself. She managed to sneak her abductor's cell phone and call 911. She left an open line so emergency operators could hear their conversation and dropped clues into her whereabouts, the model of the car they were driving and a description of the abductor. The phone call ended after the abductor asked where his cell phone was and Denise's response that she didn't know
  • 6:23 p.m. - Sabrina Muxlow, the daughter of the suspected kidnapper's cousin, called 911 and told operators that the abductor had a girl tied up in his car. "He came over to my dad's house," she says in the call, and he "borrowed a shovel, a gas tank, and something else." Denise Lee tried to escape, Muxlow tells the operator, but was put "back in the car."1
  • 6:30 p.m. - While driving, Jane Kowalski called call to 911 to report an emergency. "I was at a stoplight and a man pulled up next to me and there was a child screaming in the car,"2 she says on the call. Because it was getting dark, Kowalski misidentified the color of the car and mistook the kidnapped to be a child. She thought she was witnessing a child abduction. After looking at the car, she says "a hand came up and started banging on the passenger window."3 She tried to follow the car, but it turned before the operator could respond. Because the call was made just beyond the Sarasota County line, it was routed to a different 911 call center, in Charlotte County. This call was never followed up
  • 6:50 p.m. - The final 911 call related to Denise's disappearance was made by the suspect's cousin, Harold Muxlow, from a pay phone. Muxlow says he's "not sure exactly what the emergency is," but that somebody had been taken. "It didn't look like she wanted to be there,"4 he tells the operator. Muxlow told police that his cousin borrowed a gas can, a shovel, and a flashlight, saying it was for a lawn mower that had broken down and was stuck in a ditch. After Michael King grabbed these items from his tool shed, Muxlow said he watched a woman struggle with King for about 30 seconds, at one point getting outside the car and yelling "Call the cops." 5 According to Muxlow, King pushed her back in the car, said "Don't worry about it,"6 and took off

Denise ended up being murdered. She was shot in the head.

Dispatcher's Responsibility

After this tragedy, there was a lot of criticism regarding the 911 response. The dispatchers have been ridiculed for repeatedly asking Denise her name and location, even asking her to turn the radio down, oblivious to the fact that she wasn't in a place where she could answer their questions. Furthermore, when Jane Kowalski called 911, the call was never transferred or turned over to where it needed to go. The 911 system failed Denise.

Denise's husband Nate blames the 911 operators for not passing along the information. Two operators were suspended for the way they mishandled the information, one for two days, the other for a month.

"It's a deeper issue than just somebody forgetting. There's a lot of issues in that call center,"7 Nate commented. "The fact is, Denise did everything she possibly could to save her life and the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office didn't do everything it could to save her life. I think that's what the deepest issue is."8

Nate has announced his intention to file a lawsuit against the Charlotte County Sheriff's Department in Florida claiming that the 911 call center's alleged negligence contributed to his wife's death. The aim isn't to get money, he said, but to mandate standardized training for all 911 operators.

The Charlotte County Sheriff's office is looking into the entire case and evaluating all of their responsibilities.

Ironically, Denise's father, Rick Goff, is Charlotte County's Sheriff. The potential lawsuit puts his own father-in-law in an awkward position, since it's directed at his own office and whose system failed his daughter.

The Aftermath - Towards A Standardized System

After this incident, 911 has been criticized due to the lack of a national program of certification for public safety dispatchers. Denise's father and husband have decided to take action to reform Florida's 911 system, pressing for passage of a state law named after Denise, to standardize training for all 911 call center workers.

Together, they launched the Denise Amber Lee Foundation, whose goal is to mandate a national dispatcher training requirement that will create federal standards for training 911 dispatchers. Currently, regulations can vary by state, even by county.

Best Practices

In spite of the call for better 911 service after this and other cases, the answer is that police do not have a specific duty to protect you from criminal attack in most of the United States or even respond to your emergency 911 call. Suing any level of government for incidents such as this is difficult since "the government" is not considered an entity such as a person or business.

For what to do when calling 9-1-1, check out Best Practices in Emergency Services.


1Calls of Distress, 911 calls show timeline of Denise Lee's abduction, Dateline ,, June 6, 2008,, accessed Sept. 25, 2009.
3 Id.
4 Id.
5 Id.
6 Id.
7Mike Celizic, Murdered woman's husband: 911 botched call, Today at, April 11, 2008,, accessed Sept. 25, 2009.
8 Id.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Could a 911 dispatch center employee be personally liable if proper procedures weren't followed during a call and someone was hurt as a result?
  • How common are lawsuits against governments and others related to shortcomings in 911 calls?
  • How can I find out about the 911 coverage in my area, for example if I live in an unincorporated subdivision in a larger city or metro area, or how a call would be routed on my cell phone?
  • Do phone companies face any liability when emergency call systems fail?
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