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City's civil trial against Ryneal opens

June 10, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Testimony in the first day of the trial of City of Martinsburg v. Ryneal Fire Co. No. 1 centered on the long-standing relationship between those two agencies and whether a written contract ever cemented the pairing.

Michael Scales, attorney for Ryneal, argued that a written agreement was in place and that the city breached it in February when city officials demanded Ryneal hand over all of its money along with the three ambulances and rescue squad truck Ryneal bought for city use.

As proof of the written agreement, Scales referred to the minutes from two 1985 Martinsburg City Council meetings. In those minutes, it is indicated that Ryneal will receive all funds generated through ambulance transports and that they, in return, will buy ambulances for the city.

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Jerry Rhodes, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, countered that those minutes alone do not constitute a written agreement. No concrete proof that a written contract existed has ever been found, he and others testified.

Since 1985, Ryneal has collected the fees charged to anyone who requires ambulance transport. A person who needs basic life support equipment is billed $275, while advanced life support costs $450.

With those fees, Ryneal has purchased ambulances, the rescue truck, cell phones, medications, linens, rugs and other items for the Martinsburg Fire Department.

When the city earlier this year sought and obtained its own license to perform emergency medical services - a license previously held by Ryneal - Ryneal lost money, Scales said.

Altogether, given the expected life of the ambulances, Ryneal will have lost more than $640,000 in ambulance bills, Scales said. He said he believes the jury will find that the city owes Ryneal that amount.

Ryneal now hopes to open a private medical transport business, Scales said. A wooden sign on W.Va. 45 at the Berkeley/Jefferson county line indicates that "Ryneal Medical Transport" will open there soon.

Attorney Michael Lorensen, who represents the city, said the vehicles belong to Martinsburg. It was the city that insured them, paid for gasoline and spent $4 million since 1985 for personnel to run them, he said.

He told jurors during his opening remarks that they will decide if the city should retain ownership of the vehicles.

Scales, in his opening statement, said he believes city officials wanted Ryneal out of the picture for two reasons. First, he said the city wanted the money Ryneal was collecting. Also, he said, Martinsburg Fire Department Chief Paul Bragg's former employment with the state Office of Emergency Medical Services influenced the city's decision. Bragg worked for that Charleston, W.Va., office before becoming Martinsburg's fire chief on Sept. 10, 2001.

On Monday, both sides in the case told Circuit Judge David Sanders that an out-of-court settlement was possible. However, one was not reached.

The trial began with jury selection, which lasted a little more than an hour. A jury of two women and five men, including an alternate, is hearing the case.

Because of a possible conflict, city residents were not allowed to sit on the jury.

Of the 30 or so possible witnesses in the case, the three that were called to the stand Tuesday gave long, detailed testimony. Several jurors took notes on court-provided notepads, while at least one juror was spotted yawning.

Attorneys for both sides of the case said they expect the trial to last until the end of the week. To prevent it from spilling over into next week, Judge Sanders said he may keep jurors past 5 p.m. today.

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