Wofford sued over choking death

Randall Heffron

A lawsuit filed against Wofford College alleges “reckless and grossly negligent” action by two campus safety officers who responded to a dorm where student Randall Heffron of Daniel Island was choking on pizza.

Heffron, 20 and a Wofford sophomore, was eating late at night with friends in Shipp Dormitory when his airway became blocked by food. The dorm resident adviser placed a call to the campus safety department at 12:22 a.m. Sept. 10, 2011. At 1:15 a.m., Heffron was pronounced dead at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center, the suit states. A campus safety report on the incident states emergency room doctors used forceps to remove fist-sized food blocking Heffron’s airway.

The college would not comment on the suit, which was filed Thursday in Spartanburg County Court of Common Pleas, said Laura Corbin, Wofford director of news services.

Heffron was a tennis star at Bishop England High School attending Wofford on a tennis and academic scholarship.

The suit seeks a jury trial on allegations of gross negligence and recklessness, negligence and negligent training/supervision and wrongful death. It asks for actual and punitive damages.

Heffron suffered extreme emotional distress and terror while suffocating and going into cardiac arrest, the suit says.

The plaintiff in the suit is the estate of Heffron and his grandfather Howard Walker, who was appointed personal representative for the estate in Berkeley County Probate Court.

The suit alleges negligence on the part of the two officers for a number of reasons, including that they did not ask Heffron’s friends if he was choking, did not immediately evaluate him to determine if he had a clear airway, and failed to determine that Heffron was choking to death.

“Defendant Wofford College owed a duty to ensure that its campus safety officers were properly trained in basic life support, abdominal thrusts, rescue breathing and other proper responses to foreign body airway obstruction,” the suit states.

The Spartanburg County coroner determined that Heffron died because his air passage was blocked by food. A blood alcohol level of 0.253 may have contributed to the vomiting episode, which led to extensive aspiration of food, the coroner said in news reports. A blood alcohol level of 0.08 is considered legally drunk to drive in South Carolina.

Fritz Jekel, attorney for the plaintiff, said Heffron’s reported blood alcohol level is problematic because it was taken five hours after he died. Once the body dies, it begins making its own alcohol through decomposition, he said.

Heffron never vomited but instead choked and coughed out pieces of food, Jekel said.

The dorm is less than a mile from an emergency room. Given the proximity of emergency care, Heffron should not have died, he said.

The first campus officer on the scene went back outside to call 911 because he could not get cellular reception in the building. During those critical moments, he left students tending to Heffron, Jekel said.

Three minutes after the dorm resident adviser called campus safety, an officer arrived at 12:25 a.m. and two minutes later the officer called 911. The officer spoke with dispatch for another two minutes before returning to the dorm and beginning CPR on Heffron. A second officer arrived and assisted. EMS arrived at 12:32 a.m. Heffron arrived at the emergency room at 12:58 a.m. and was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m.