A judge has ruled that Spokane, Wash., residents who have used American Medical Response ambulances since 1998 can pursue state Consumer Protection Act and breach of contract claims against the company.
AMR, the nation’s largest ambulance company, was sued for allegedly overbilling hundreds of patients and insurance companies.
AMR tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, saying plaintiffs had failed to prove it had engaged in deceptive business practices.
AMR attorney Paul J. Dayton said the company made mere billing errors and agreed to pay more than $320,000 in refunds. Those refunds, however, would only have applied to patients who used AMR ambulances between 2004 and March of this year.
On Friday, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque denied two motions that would have essentially killed a lawsuit filed against AMR late last year.
The ruling also allows plaintiffs to ask a jury a year from now to award “exemplary damages” up to $10,000 for each violation and attorney fees, said the plaintiffs’ lawyer Roger Reed.
The suit was filed by patients Lori E. Davis-Bacon and Lorraine and Doug Bacon, who claim they were charged for “advanced life support” services when they should have been billed for cheaper “basic life support.”
Under a contract AMR signed with the city of Spokane in 1993, the company is supposed to charge the basic life support rate of $358 when a city firefighter accompanies a patient to the hospital in one of AMR’s ambulances. But a recent audit showed many patients were charged the higher advanced life support rate of $494.
In June, the judge agreed to certify the lawsuit against AMR as a class action, meaning 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.
AMR’s attorney said there is no evidence at this point that the company had engaged in deceptive business practices, as the plaintiffs allege.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer countered that those 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.”
AMR also lost its argument that the lawsuit should be tossed because the city serves as a “regulatory agency” in monitoring AMR’s ambulance. Reed said city residents transported by AMR are third-party beneficiaries under the city contract giving AMR the monopoly on ambulance service inside city limits.
Ultimately, the judge said it was his “visceral feeling” that “people who paid too much can’t get any relief” other than by bringing the lawsuit.
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