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Widow's suit: Couple didn't do enough to save choking man's life

NEW PORT RICHEY — Andreas Pieri died in the company of friends.

His wife, Thelma, was overseas. So friends Phillip and Andamanatia Rivers had him over for dinner.

Then their guest started choking.

What happened next is the reason Thelma Pieri filed suit Friday against the Riverses.

The couple didn't try the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the food blocking his airway, according to the lawsuit.

And the law says they didn't have to.

But Thelma Pieri isn't suing the Riverses because they did nothing to help — but because they didn't do enough.

• • •

The dinner was June 22, 2006, at the Riverses' Gulf Harbors home, according to the suit filed in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court.

When Andreas Pieri began choking, the lawsuit said, the couple gave him a glass of water. Then they called 911.

Paramedics came and managed to clear his airway, according to Thelma Pieri's attorney, Jim Magazine. But it was too late.

Andreas Pieri was already brain dead, the lawyer said. He died in a Pasco hospital July 8, 2006, at age 67.

• • •

A person's moral obligations, said University of Florida law professor Lars Noah, are not the same as his legal ones.

If someone is in trouble, and you did nothing to harm them, then the law says you don't have to do anything to help them.

There are exceptions. Babysitters are legally responsible for their charges, for example. Or if you're choking in a restaurant, the staff has to help you.

But otherwise, the law says we can help — and not help — whomever we wish.

"It may be crass, it may be conduct we would all frown upon," the professor said, "but you don't have to lift a finger." Otherwise, Noah said, everyone would be obliged to help — and be second-guessed by the law.

"You would have this constant meddling," the professor said, "these do-gooders getting in your way."

But to sue someone for not helping?

"That's why it's rare," Noah said. "Lawyers don't bring those cases because they know from first-year torts, those never work.

"Unless you can find some other angle."

• • •

This might be that angle: the glass of water the Riverses tried to give to the choking man.

"Our argument is that once you attempt to help somebody you have to do it in a reasonable manner," Magazine said. "The aid they attempted to render was to provide him with water, and when that doesn't work, then it's our argument that it's unreasonable not to try and help him further by performing the Heimlich maneuver."

The lawsuit is seeking thousands of dollars for medical and funeral expenses and loss of companionship. The Riverses' homeowners' insurance would cover any losses.

But the professor sees the lawyer's argument as half full.

"You ask 50 people on the street and I'm sure the vast majority would say sure, a reasonable person would do that," Noah said, referring to the Heimlich. "But as a matter of tort law, you don't have an obligation to act reasonably in the first place."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Widow's suit: Couple didn't do enough to save choking man's life 06/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 11:43am]
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