A North Carolina 911 dispatcher promised to "definitely" let the highway department know that a stop sign had been knocked down at a dangerous intersection near Wilmington.
According to court records, Pender County dispatcher Daniel Bowden appears to have never followed through.
Three days later, in 2017, a tractor-trailer struck a Florida couple's SUV at the same intersection. The driver of the SUV, Julie Stahl, was seriously injured. Her husband, 60-year-old Kenneth Stahl, later died.
Julie Stahl was charged with failing to heed a stop sign.
Except, the sign mounted on the median — one of two that warn Malpass Corner drivers to stop before crossing U.S. 421 — remained down.
Julie Stahl filed suit in 2018, accusing Bowden of negligence.
On Wednesday, the N.C. Court of Appeals refused to give Bowden immunity against the complaint. Now, Stahl's allegations will be heard by a jury.
"This is a very tragic case," one of her attorneys, David Collins of Wilmington, told the Observer on Wednesday. "We're very pleased with the court's opinion, and we're looking forward to having our day in court."
Bowden continues to handle 911 calls in Pender County. His attorney, Christopher Geis of Winston-Salem, declined comment Thursday, saying he had not studied the appeals' court opinion or discussed it with his client.
In a filing for Bowden's appeal, Geis argued that Julie Stahl caused the wreck by running a stop sign. He added that Bowden had not been legally obligated to notify the highway department of the fallen sign, and that because his client's behavior had not been "wanton and willful," Bowden was protected by state law.
How the jury assigns responsibility for the accident between Bowden and the driver remains to be seen. But the case brings added scrutiny to the role dispatchers play in emergency communications, where routine phone calls can carry life-or-death consequences.
In most incidents, dispatchers get emergency responders where they need to go. But exceptions often result in big headlines.
In San Diego, a woman who was shot three times by gang members and left a quadriplegic, sued the city for gross negligence, claiming that police dispatchers did not take her mother's 911 calls seriously.
In Washington State, the family of a man who died in a mobile home fire accused the fire department's dispatchers of mishandling the elderly victim's calls for help.
In Nashville, a judge ruled that a family of one of the four victims killed during a 2018 mass shooting could sue the city after a dispatcher sent police to the wrong Waffle House.
Scene of numerous accidents
According to court documents, the North Carolina incident began with a Feb. 7, 2017, phone call to the Pender County 911 Communication Center where Bowden was on duty.
A woman on the line told him about the downed stop sign in the median for drivers trying to cross U.S. 421 at Malpass Corner Road.
According to WECT-Channel 6, the crossing had been the scene of multiple collisions.
"That's a dangerous intersection for there not to be a stop sign up," the caller told Bowden, according to court records.
"Yes ma'am, it is," Bowden replied before confirming the location, records show. "We will definitely let DOT know."
According to the Court of Appeals' ruling, "No record exists of any communication from Defendant to the North Carolina Department of Transportation regarding that report."
Three days later, Julie and Kenneth Stahl were traveling east on Malpass Corner, entering the last stages of a drive from Florida to visit family near Morehead City, about 75 miles away.
At the U.S. 421 crossing, the stop sign normally in the median was still down. But a second one on the right shoulder was in place.
According to court records, the Stahls' SUV was traveling at 40 mph when it attempted to cross the highway. There, it was struck by the tractor-trailer, flipped and landed in a roadside ditch.
The next day, documents show, the same woman who talked to Bowden on Feb. 7 called back. This time, another dispatcher answered. The stop sign was still down, the caller said.
"I called earlier this week and they still haven't come to put it back up, and someone was killed at that intersection last night," she said.
This time, court documents show, the dispatcher emailed the N.C. Department of Transportation.
According to the Court of Appeals' opinion, the stop sign was reinstalled within two hours.
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