CEDAR CITY — A November 2015 jury trial has been set by Scheduling Order entered Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, at which time the claims of a former paramedic with the Iron County Public Ambulance Service, Bridget Larsen, brought against Iron County, its sheriff, Mark Gower, and Sheriff’s Office Emergency Services Lt. Jody Edwards, will be heard. Larsen filed her lawsuit in December 2013 listing multiple claims against the county and its officials including wrongdoing by the county ambulance service as well as violation of her civil rights, including those afforded her under the “Whistle Blower Act.”
The county and its officials answered Larsen’s complaint in January, denying allegations made and countering with their own defensive claims against her.
The case is presently proceeding into discovery and other procedural phases of the action without pretrial hearing. By order of U.S. Magistrate Judge Evelyn Furse signed March 4, filed and entered Tuesday, a five-day jury trial is set for November 2, 2015.
The civil rights lawsuit filed in the District Court in Salt Lake City on Dec. 16, 2013, alleges that Larsen is a licensed paramedic residing in Iron County and a former employee of the county ambulance service.
Prior to the period in which Larsen’s complaint arises, the ambulance service was managed by Iron County on a part-time basis under Ron Johnson, who was hired in 1992. Johnson was made a full-time manager of the service effective Jan. 1, 2001. And then, in November 2012, the Iron County Commission reorganized the ambulance service putting the Sheriff’s Office in charge of managing emergency medical services. Larsen is suing Gower and Edwards in both their professional capacities for the county and personally.
According to the complaint, Larsen’s First Amendment rights were violated by Iron County, Gower and Edwards when she tried to expose wrongdoing by the ambulance service. She also accuses Iron County of violating the Utah Protection of Public Employees Act, otherwise known as the “Whistle Blower Act,” when they terminated her employment in June 2013.
“Larsen and other employees of Iron County must be free to speak out without fear of retaliation or termination,” the complaint states. It alleges that Gower and Edwards imposed a policy in December 2012 that prevented Larsen and other ambulance employees from airing grievances over mismanagement of the ambulance service and violations that related to the ability of paramedics “to do their job which is to treat patients effectively and transport patients to hospitals alive.”
The December 2012 policy broadly forbids “any conduct or pattern of conduct that would tend to disrupt, diminish, or otherwise jeopardize public trust and fidelity in public safety,” Larsen’s complaint states. She argues that it thereby kept her from initiating any civil action, or using any information obtained through her employment, without first obtaining Edwards’ permission.
Insofar as the ambulance service is concerned, the issues Larsen raises turn on Utah’s “response configuration” law, which spells out requirements for equipment, medications, staffing and billing amounts for paramedic services within the state.
In her complaint, Larsen said she observed and documented ongoing noncompliance with the requirements, including: equipment, medication and training noncompliance; fraudulent billing practices; “likely deaths of certain patients;” adverse employment actions; and a policy that served to chill her ability to expose and remedy the violations.
Attorney Bryan Jackson in Cedar City is assisting Larsen’s Salt Lake attorney, Roger Hoole, with the lawsuit. He believes there have been deaths that have occurred because the county’s ambulance service was not in compliance, Jackson said. Problems have involved outdated medications, he said, and equipment problems such as failing to charge batteries on defibrillators and failing to calibrate defibrillators properly prior to responding to emergency medical calls.
When the Sheriff’s Office took over the ambulance service in the fall of 2012, Jackson said, it put Edwards – who has no emergency medical training – in charge.
Iron County is billing for paramedic response on calls when they shouldn’t be, Jackson said. “Several EMTs have been shaken down if they question anything,” Jackson said.
Iron County response
Iron County, Gower and Edwards filed their answer on Jan. 23 denying Larsen’s allegations and offering 51 defenses – defenses that both defend their actions and bring their own claims against Larsen that, if proven, could mitigate or remove liability even if Larsen’s claims are found to be true.
In addition to arguing that Larsen failed to pursue remedies within the system before filing her lawsuit, the Iron County Defendants raise various theories of governmental immunity and other legal defenses. They also claim that Larsen abandoned her employment and her termination was consistent with business necessity.
Sheriff Mark Gower declined to comment on the lawsuit, deferring to his attorney Kristin Vanorman with the Salt Lake City law firm of Strong and Hanni, which is representing him, Edwards and the county.
The lawsuit is in its very beginning stages, Vanorman said, “at this point in time, I feel very confident in the county’s position in the case and believe that the county will ultimately prevail in this matter.”
Sen. Evan Vickers, who represents the Iron County region, said he did not have any cause for concern with the current emergency medical services in Iron County.
“I have quite a bit of confidence in the sheriff,” Vickers said, “and the emergency medical people.”
State regulatory agency response
Utah Bureau of Emergency Medical Services is the state agency that licenses and regulates emergency medical providers and services within the state. The agency is required to conduct annual inspections of all EMS providers in the state to ensure that they are in compliance with all regulations.
In reviewing the annual inspection reports since the time Iron County Sheriff’s Office took over emergency medical services, BEMS Program Manager Guy Dansie said he is unaware of any compliance issues.
Complaints regarding EMS providers may also be filed with the BEMS. There is no record of a complaint filed by Larsen with the state agency, and there is no open investigation involving Iron County by the bureau, Dansie said.
“I’m not saying they didn’t do anything improper,” Dansie said, “we just don’t have a record of anything.”
State law requires all those who provide emergency patient care be properly trained and licensed by the BEMS. However, Dansie said, the manager over emergency medical services is not required by state law or by rule to be certified as an EMT or have any particular training in emergency medical services.
In terms of billing, “they are only to bill for paramedic services if paramedics respond,” Dansie said. “Paramedics do not respond if local protocols determine that they are not required or needed.”
Because Iron county is licensed as a paramedic rescue agency, he said, they are required to send two paramedics and they would respond in rescue vehicles instead of riding on the ambulance to a scene.
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