LAND O'LAKES — The family of Nancy McGhee has settled a lawsuit against Pasco County government over the 911 dispatchers who failed to help as McGhee choked to death on a piece of steak.
The county will pay $75,000 to McGhee's four children. Her death in 2007 led to the resignation of two dispatch supervisors and new training requirements for Pasco employees handling 911 calls.
McGhee's oldest child, 22-year-old Chrissy Cresong, said the negligence lawsuit had lingered for four years, and she wanted to close this chapter of her life.
"I just wanted to get it over and done with," said Cresong, who was 16 when her mother died. "I'm trying my best to carry on and stuff. I don't want to keep bringing it up and talking about it.
"It's really hard."
McGhee died March 24, 2007 inside the Land O'Lakes mobile home she shared with her boyfriend, Chris Cooper. McGhee, who had a history of alcohol-fueled binges, drank 12 beers before trying to chew a 3-inch-long piece of steak, records state. When Cooper saw she was choking, he tried to remove the steak himself. When that failed, he called 911.
"I don't know what to do," he howled on the recording, sobbing and pleading for help.
He didn't get it immediately.
At the time, Pasco County dispatchers had one year from their date of hire to become certified in emergency medical dispatch. This meant if a person without the training answered a medical call, the staffer needed to ask a supervisor for help. The state does not require dispatchers to have this certification.
Dispatcher Jennie Montanino, who was not medically certified, asked her supervisor, David Cook, three times for help. He refused, saying, "I'm not getting on with a hysterical caller," according to accounts of the incident. Cooper is heard on the 911 tape begging McGhee to breathe again. "Come on, honey," he pleaded.
Seven minutes after Cooper first called 911, Cook got on the phone to explain the Heimlich maneuver. Cooper put down the phone to try it.
"He left the freakin' phone," Cook said on the recording.
When it didn't work, Cook passed the call back to Montanino. "I'm over this already," Cook reportedly said after slamming down the phone.
The rescue workers closest to the scene were fighting a house fire, so responders had to come from another district, records showed. An ambulance arrived 11 minutes after Cooper called 911.
By then, McGhee was dead.
"She must have bitten off more than she can chew," Cook joked after news of McGhee's death reached the dispatch center, colleagues reported.
Her death created a firestorm that drew national media attention. Cook, an 18-year employee who had been warned twice about sleeping on the job, was suspended and retired as an investigation got underway. Another supervisor who allegedly refused to help, 14-year veteran Maureen Thomas, resigned as well.
County officials also strengthened the training requirements for dispatchers. Now, all dispatchers "have to be certified in emergency medical dispatch before they can process a 911 call," said Pasco 911 operations manager Jody Kenyon.
In court records, the county argued that Cooper's efforts to dislodge the steak contributed to McGhee's death. The county also contended that McGhee was partly to blame because she was intoxicated. Tests showed her blood-alcohol content was between 0.321 and 0.355 — more than four times the level at which the state presumes impairment.
The law firm of Cole, Scott & Kissane represented Pasco County in the case.
Anthony Salzano, senior assistant county attorney, said the settlement will be paid by the dispatch center's insurer, RSUI Group, Inc., and the county is in the process of paying its $50,000 deductible. Once that is done, the insurance company will pay the settlement and court documents will be filed stating the case is closed.
At the time of her mother's death, Chrissy Cresong lived with her paternal grandmother in Lake Placid. McGhee's youngest children, now ages 10, 13 and 14, were in foster care when McGhee died and were adopted shortly afterward. McGhee's mother, Martha Callahan, who represented her daughter's estate in the lawsuit, was devastated by McGhee's death.
"It was really bad for her," Cresong said.
Callahan died last May. Cresong, who works in a nursing home and hopes to attend college, said she wants to move on.
Despite her flaws, McGhee was a loving person who was working to regain custody of her children, Cresong said. She wishes none of this would have happened, but she's forgiven those involved.
"I'm not going to live my life in anger over somebody else's mistake," Cresong said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.