City seeks control of ambulances

June 10, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - If the civil trial of City of Martinsburg vs. Ryneal begins today, Berkeley County Circuit Judge David Sanders ruled Monday that he will do his best to ensure that city residents are not part of the jury.

However, both sides of the case said they are working toward an out-of-court settlement, which would negate the need for a trial.

Whether a settlement had been reached by Monday night could not be determined. Attorney Michael Lorensen, who is representing the city, met with Martinsburg City Council members behind closed doors for nearly two hours Monday evening, updating them on the case. Council members did not take any action after the meeting, and Lorensen said he could not release any details on the possible settlement.


Ryneal Fire Co. No. 1's attorney, Michael Scales, could not be reached Monday night.

If a settlement was reached, Sanders asked the attorneys to let Circuit Clerk Virginia Sine know so she could make sure potential jurors did not come to the courthouse this morning. As of 9 p.m. Monday, Sine said she had not heard from either lawyer.

The case centers on who owns three ambulances and a rescue squad truck. Since 1985, Ryneal, a noncity corporation, has been collecting the fees charged whenever Martinsburg Fire Department employees use an ambulance to take someone to the hospital. Anyone who is treated with basic life support equipment is billed $275, while advanced life support costs $450.

Ryneal uses that money to buy vehicles, equipment and other supplies for the fire department, Ryneal President Mary Helmick said.

Earlier this year, city officials decided they wanted to do the billing and collecting. They asked Ryneal to hand over all the money in its account and also title the vehicles over to the city.

Arguing that they owned the ambulances, Ryneal officials refused. The city filed the lawsuit in March.

Exactly how much money Ryneal has in its account is unknown, since Ryneal has refused city requests to open its financial records. In court paperwork, city officials indicated they believe Ryneal receives between $200,000 and $275,000 each year for services.

Should the case proceed to trial, Scales requested that city residents be excluded from the jury. Residents might worry that if a judgment is imposed against the city, their taxes could increase, Scales said.

A statute that Scales read aloud in Sanders' courtroom indicates a judge can decide whether to eliminate city residents from a jury if a municipality is involved.

Lorensen responded that it already may be difficult to impanel a jury because of the "notoriety" of the case. He objected to preventing city residents from being on the jury.

Six jurors will hear the civil case during trial, which could last all week, Scales said.

The Herald-Mail Articles