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April 15, 2014
Lawsuit: 911 Spanish interpreter botched translation, sent ambulance to wrong address
By Aimee Green
PORTLAND, Ore. — A $3 million wrongful death lawsuit accuses a 9-1-1 Spanish-language interpreter of botching the translation of an address and sending an ambulance to the wrong location as a 25-year-old woman was gasping for air.
A total of 26 minutes ticked by as medics raced around searching for the woman in distress, received the correct address and arrived to find Elidiana Valdez-Lemus unconscious from cardiac arrest. She had not taken a breath in the previous 14 minutes, and doctors declared her brain dead.
Three days later, she died after her family made the decision to take her off of life support.
That’s all according to the suit, which was filed Friday in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The attorney’s office for the City of Portland, which is listed as a defendant through its Bureau of Emergency Communications, declined to comment citing the pending litigation.
The following is according to the lawsuit:
The father of the woman’s children, Misael Reyna, dialed 9-1-1 at 4:43 a.m. on April 12, 2011, to report, in Spanish, that “My wife says she cannot breath.”
The interpreter relayed to the 9-1-1 call taker: “My wife is short of breath.”
When asked for an address, Reyna replied in Spanish: “2601 111th Avenue.”
The interpreter relayed to the dispatcher: “2600 101st Avenue.”
After the call taker asked for clarification about which part of town he was in -- Southeast, Northwest, etc. -- an ambulance was dispatched.
Seven minutes later, at 4:50 a.m., medics arrived at the wrong address.
At 4:55 a.m., Valdez-Lemus stopped breathing.
Seconds later, medics asked to confirm the address, because they hadn’t been able to find anyone who needed help.
At 4:58 a.m., medics learned the correct address.
At 5:09 a.m., medics arrived at the correct address.
Diego Conde, the Portland attorney who is representing the dead woman’s estate, said the death was completely preventable.
Conde said the couple’s three young children lay asleep as Reyna saw Valdez-Lemus deteriorate in stages. She had trouble breathing, then started foaming and bleeding from her mouth and nose. She began turned blue. And she fell unconscious. Then the 9-1-1 call taker instructed Reyna on how to do mouth-to-mouth and give chest compressions.
“At one point, (the call taker tells) him they’re outside their door, ‘Go get them,’” said Conde, who has listened to the 9-1-1 recording several times. “He opens the door and sprints out there, and there’s no one there.”
“He runs back to the phone and says ‘There’s no one out there,’” Conde said. “He gives them the address again, and then they realize they have the wrong address.”
Conde believes his suit points out a systemic problem with Portland’s 9-1-1 system, which relies on a translation service for many thousands of Spanish speakers.
“The address is the most important part of any 911 call,” Conde said.
“We all have a right to cry for help if our loved ones are in need,” Conde continued. “We need to have effective, efficient interpreters or Spanish-speaking operators. We cannot do without.”
Laura Wolfe, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Emergency Communications, said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit specifically. But Wolfe said behind English, Spanish is the most frequently spoken language on 9-1-1. Call takers only have to press one button to get a Spanish interpreter on the line.
Even though some call takers speak Spanish, Wolfe said they’re required to use a certified interpreter because every detail of the translation must be precise.
“They’re trained,” Wolfe said of the interpreters. “They’re held to a very high standard.”
A second button connects call takers to a service with interpreters for more than 100 languages.
In addition to the City of Portland, the Valdez-Lemus suit also lists as defendants: Language Line Translation Solutions, Lingo Systems, Language Line Service, AT&T Corp. and the unknown name of the company that provided the Spanish-language interpreter in Valdez-Lemus’ case.