City of Spokane residents who have used American Medical Response ambulances since 1998 have the right to pursue “exemplary damages” under the state’s Consumer Protection Act, a judge ruled Friday.
Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque denied two motions brought by AMR attorney Paul J. Dayton, of Seattle, that would have essentially killed the lawsuit filed late last year.
“This was a key ruling in the case because the judge agreed that we do have a right to pursue our Consumer Protection Act and breach of contract claims,” said Spokane attorney D. Roger Reed, who represents the plaintiffs.
The ruling also allows the plaintiffs to ask a jury a year from now to award “exemplary damages” up to $10,000 for each violation and attorney fees, Reed said.
“We contend ‘exemplary damages’ can mean each instance of an overcharge,” Reed said.
The suit was filed by patients Lori E. Davis-Bacon and Lorraine and Doug Bacon, all of Spokane, who contend they were charged for “advanced life support” services when they only should have been billed for cheaper “basic life support.”
In June, the judge agreed to expand their lawsuit to a class action, meaning potentially as many as 30,000 patients who were transported by AMR ambulances between 1998 and the date of the lawsuit’s filing could become co-plaintiffs.
But after losing that class action fight, AMR’s attorney came back with two summary judgment motions on Friday, asking the court to toss out the suit.
The AMR attorney argued for dismissal because the plaintiffs had failed to prove the ambulance company engaged in “deceptive” business practices – required groundwork to prevail under the state’s Consumer Protection Act.
Dayton argued to the court that AMR – the nation’s largest ambulance company – had merely made “billing errors” without deception and had voluntarily agreed to pay $320,689 in refunds.
Those refunds, however, only apply to patients who used AMR ambulances between 2004 and March of this year, when the company admitted the overbilling while under scrutiny for such violations by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
Dayton argued that the suit should be dismissed because the city serves as a “regulatory agency” in monitoring AMR’s ambulance services.
“I can’t rule in favor of the defendant in that,” Leveque said.
The judge also said it was his “visceral feeling” that “people who paid too much can’t get any relief” other than by bringing the lawsuit.
But Leveque also said there is no evidence before the court at this point that AMR had engaged in “deceptive business” practices, as the plaintiffs allege.
Reed argued that plaintiffs seeking redress under the state’s Consumer Protection Act don’t have to prove a company was involved in fraudulent practices.
“Pure heart and empty head doesn’t apply here to AMR,” Reed said. “We don’t examine (the company’s) heart. We examine what was done – people were ripped off.
“Regardless of AMR’s intent,” Reed said, “we don’t have to prove fraud to proceed with claims under the state’s Consumer Protection Act.”
He also argued that city residents transported by AMR are “third-party” beneficiaries under the city contract that gives AMR the monopoly on ambulance service inside city limits.
In June, Mayor Dennis Hession levied an $80,172 fine against AMR for its overbilling – only a fraction of what could have been assessed under the contract.
Under the contract, the Spokane Fire Department audits bills by making spot checks on a monthly basis of city residents who use AMR ambulances inside city limits. AMR is not regulated for what it charges patients outside the city.
If firefighters ride in the ambulance and help provide advanced life support, city residents who pay an emergency services tax are only supposed to be charged for basic services. In return, the Fire Department is paid $25,000 a month by AMR.