The city of Cincinnati will pay $6 million and commit to longterm improvements for its Emergency Call Center to settle a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of Kyle Plush, a 16-year-old who suffocated in the back seat of his own van despite making multiple 911 calls for help.
“The most important thing in the settlement is the reform measures. We’ve got an agreement with the city that establishes an expert team, 911 experts from all over the country,” said Attorney Al Gerhardstein at a press conference Friday, explaining that the reforms will be court supervised for a five-year term.
While there’s no formal apology for Kyle Plush's death in the agreement, Gerhardstein said it contains something far more important to the Plush family.
“The Plushes have not asked for an apology. They want action, and this agreement gives them action. And they don’t want paper platitudes, they want to make sure this gets fixed,” Gerhardstein said.
At the Friday afternoon press conference, Ron and Jill Plush described their son as a positive person who sought to make positive change. Through the Kyle Plush Answer The Call Foundation, the Plushes seek to improve 911 communications across the country in honor of their son.
“This is a positive change," Jill Plush said. "We’re going in the right direction."
The settlement announcement arrived just before the three-year anniversary of Kyle Plush's death, which prompted widespread scrutiny of the city's 911 system and the people who had been trusted to handle Cincinnatians' most urgent calls.
“On the eve of this tragedy, I think he’s looking down on us, and I think he’s very pleased with the result,” added Ron Plush.
“The employees of the Emergency Communications Center and Police Department are dedicated public servants who are committed to helping when people need them the most," wrote City Manager Paula Boggs Muething in a statement. "We will work every day to ensure that our City never again experiences a tragedy like the one suffered by the Plush family. The City is dedicated to providing the most professional emergency response to all Cincinnatians.”
Plush died April 10, 2018, in a parking lot across the street from Seven Hills School, which he attended. The teen, who was unusually small for his age, was taking items out of his minivan that afternoon when he became trapped in the third-row bench seat.
His cause of death would be termed “asphyxia caused by chest compression” by Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco; “positional asphyxiation” by prosecutor Joe Deters. Some mechanism in his van’s seats pressed against his chest until he suffocated and died. Because of his small size and the fact he had become trapped at the end of the school day, no one around him saw him struggling.
But before he died, Plush used the Siri virtual assistant on his out-of-reach iPhone to make two calls to 911. In both, he gasped, cried, described his vehicle and told the 911 call-takers he believed his life was in danger.
The first call-taker at Cincinnati’s Emergency Call Center labeled the call “unknown trouble” and dispatched two police officers without describing the vehicle or telling them of Plush’s stated fears for his life.
The officers drove to the scene but never left their patrol vehicle and did not search nearby parking lots. Plush called again while they were nearby.
The second call-taker accidentally activated a teletypewriter connection meant for callers who are hard of hearing; as a result, the volume of the call was drastically lowered and she did not clearly hear Plush’s voice. She ended the call and never recorded information about it in the computer-aided dispatch system, which froze while she was on the phone.
A recording of the call includes audio of Plush repeatedly attempting to reactivate Siri after Smith stops responding to him.
A teacher discovered his body later that night.
The Plush family filed a wrongful death suit against the city in 2019, personally naming the two 911 call-takers who handled their son's case and the two police officers, Officers Edsel Osborn and Brian Brazile, who were sent to search for them.
Their suit alleged former City Manager Harry Black and the city were aware at the time of Plush's death that the ECC struggled with inadequate staffing, inadequate training on the teletypewriter system, the computer-aided dispatch system freezing, system-wide outages, lack of training on use of wireless location technology and lack of training and supervision of police officers in the field.
In the years since, the city's public efforts at repairing the ECC's image have included wide-ranging 911 reform, leadership changes and overhauls to employee training. Still, city attorneys attempted to have the family's suit dismissed as recently as 2019. A judge ruled in December 2020 that the suit could continue.
According to a joint press release, the city has already made improvements to its Emergency Call Center in the years since Kyle Plush died, among them: changing leadership and higher retention rates at the ECC, upgrading mapping software in police vehicles with 911 caller locations, and amending procedures for calls classified as “unknown trouble."
“They have a long way to go, and with this expert team, we think this will advance the city’s reforms quite a ways," Gerhardstein said Friday. "In addition to the reforms, there’s a monetary settlement: The city is paying $6 million. And we hope by having them pay this money that future city leaders will make sure that this vital 911 function is kept in an excellent state and never deteriorates to the level it was when Kyle Plush called for help.”