Judge Reinstates NJ EMTs Accused of Striking Patient

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Photo by Airman 1st Class Joseph Barron

Kevin Shea

nj.com

(MCT)

A state administrative law judge has reinstated the certifications of two emergency medical technicians accused last year of striking a patient in the back of an ambulance in Jersey City.

And in doing so, New Jersey Administrative Law Judge Gail M. Cookson had harsh words for the state’s Office of Emergency Medical Services (EMS), which suspended the licenses of James Piro and John Bonvenca last fall for the alleged July 4, 2020 incident.

In her opinion, Cookson wrote that the EMS office, in the state Department of Health, acted with a “serious lack of due process” in the case, and ordered Piro and Bonvenca’s certifications reinstated pending a final hearing.

The judge also said the state’s investigation into the incident so far has been lacking and one of “anonymous and double layers of hearsay” when Piro’s and Bonvenca’s careers and ability to earn a living are on the line.

The state Health department did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Last year, Piro and Bonvenca were EMTs with RWJBarnabas Health, which contracts with Jersey City to provide emergency medical services.

On July 4, they responded with others to back up another ambulance crew that was treating a combative patient, and had pulled over on the side of the road near Grand Street and Fairmount Avenue.

The state EMS office alleged in letters to Piro and Bonvenca that they assaulted the patient by striking him several times, lied and portrayed themselves as assault victims in their reporting on the matter, and then admitted their untruthful actions to their employer.

RWJBarnabas fired them, and the state suspended their certifications in October. (A third EMT present at the incident also had his certification suspended, but was not part of this action.)

Piro and Bonvenca have said through their lawyer, Peter LeGreca, they were indeed the victims, attacked by the patient when they arrived to help a fellow crew. They filed emergency legal action relief to get their state licenses back, and filed a lawsuit against RWJBarnabas.

LaGreca said Wednesday the administrative law decision speaks for itself.

In it, the judge says the state EMS office, “added nothing to the investigation of the July 4 incident” except to read and summarize an unauthored report forwarded to the state by RWJBarnabas officials.

The judge, Cookson, found no indication Piro and Bonvenca were given any opportunity to respond to the allegations before their licenses were suspended, and the evidence before her shows “zero indication” the state has undertaken anything since to complete an investigation.

The EMS office has not submitted a single certification or affidavit of anyone with personal knowledge of the July 4 incident to the administrative law court, nor the RWJBarnabas reporting on their investigation of the incident. And key details, like the RWJBarnabas investigator’s name, incident reports, as well as times, dates and other notes and details are missing or light on details, the judge wrote.

RWJBarnabas also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The judge, Cookson, said in the decision: “I do not condone in any form or forum the striking of a patient under one’s care; but it is not disputed that this was an isolated incident, if it occurred at all, and not a pattern of [Piro’s and Bonvenca’s] tenure or the case of repeated abuse of an elderly or vulnerable person from a regular caregiver.”

The interest and safety of the public must be paramount, and a single incident may warrant a suspension, Cookson wrote.

“Nevertheless, there is also a public interest in government providing due process to its citizens before depriving them of property rights, such as [EMS certifications]…While there have been assertions of patient abuse, as stated above, at this juncture, it is entirely based on hearsay, double hearsay, and the work of anonymous investigators.”

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Kevin Shea may be reached at kshea@njadvancemedia.com

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