A Pulaski County judge found a former Little Rock emergency call taker liable for $17.6 million related to the suffering and death of Le Yang, who in 2013 nearly drowned in an SUV submerged in a pond while he and his mom waited nearly an hour for rescue.
Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox’s judgment against Candace Middleton — who never responded to the lawsuit or enrolled an attorney — means Le’s father, Dayong Yang, can now challenge Fox’s earlier decision to dismiss Little Rock and a dozen city employees from the case.
“Certainly, we’re going to explore all avenues of collection from Ms. Middleton,” said Yang’s attorney Carter Stein, of the firm McMath Woods. “We also plan an appeal against the city.”
Le and his mother, Jinglei Yi, died from injuries suffered in the 2013 crash, according to Yang’s complaint. Yi was driving then 5-year-old Le to school Jan. 14, 2013, when an ice patch sent their 2006 Ford Expedition careening into a retaining pond south of Capitol Hill Boulevard in west Little Rock, the lawsuit says.
Fox issued the order in response to Stein’s request for summary judgment, days before a two-day damages hearing was scheduled to begin.
“I lost everything,” Yang, who declined an interview request, said in sworn video testimony prepared for the hearing. “Lost the hope. Lost the son. Lost my wife.”
Middleton, who resigned from Little Rock amid an internal investigation into a “dereliction of duties” allegation, was the lone defendant remaining in the lawsuit. Little Rock declined to represent Middleton after finding she didn’t act in accordance with city policies, City Attorney Tom Carpenter said.
The lawsuit accused Middleton of not manually entering Yi’s 911 call into the computer system, which would have notified fire and police rescuers. Rescue units weren’t dispatched until 28 minutes after Yi placed the call, when Little Rock’s ambulance service called the 911 center to ask why no one had shown up, according to the lawsuit.
Calls made Thursday to a phone number listed for Middleton were unanswered.
Little Rock hired Middleton in 2012, about a year after the city of Benton fired her for “poor work performance” as a 911 dispatcher, according to court records. Her hiring came amid a long-running staff shortage at the city’s 911 Communications Center.
City Manager Bruce Moore said earlier this year that he anticipates the center will be fully staffed by early 2018 because of a new pay structure meant to better attract and retain employees.
Fox dismissed Little Rock and a dozen current and former city employees from the case in April, finding that as a government defendant, it was immune from claims of negligence. MEMS settled its part of the suit in August for $25,000, according to court filings.
Regions Bank Trust, the administrator of Yi’s estate and also represented by McMath Woods, filed a similar lawsuit in 2015. Middleton and the city of Little Rock are still parties to that lawsuit. Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services settled its portion, also for $25,000.
Le survived for two years after the crash but suffered injuries to his brain from a lack of oxygen. He ate through a tube, communicated at the level of a 4-month-old child and lived at the Arkansas Pediatric Facility before he died in early 2015 from pneumonia complicated by brain disease, the lawsuit says.
Yi died the day of the crash.
Fox ordered damages of $6.3 million for Yang’s mental anguish; $5 million for Le’s loss of life; $4 million for Le’s pain and suffering prior to his death; $1.3 million for medical expenses and $1 million for visible injuries, such as scars or disfigurement.
Yang, in video testimony released by his attorney, was shaken to tears while viewing photographs and videos of him and Le prior to the crash and afterward. Calling his son, “Leo,” he dabbed his eye with a tissue and sniffled repeatedly while narrating the moments he spent with his son at Burns Park, The Old Mill and Children’s Hospital.
“I hope he’ll wake up,” Yang said.
Yang said he takes medication for anxiety and drinks alcohol to help him sleep. He abstains from anxiety pills while at work as a surgery technician at CHI St. Vincent Hospital, so he is sometimes forced to request a break.
“Then I go to a restroom, cry and then come back to the surgery again,” Yang said. “Almost every day, I have to leave early because I have to go back home, take some pill medication and drink some alcohol. Until now, I still have to drink alcohol and medication for sleep.”