01/08/08 — Duplin agrees to settle ambulance service lawsuit

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Duplin agrees to settle ambulance service lawsuit

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 8, 2008 2:09 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Presented with a proposed settlement with Johnston Ambulance Services Monday afternoon, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners voted 5-1 to agree to not only stay out of the non-emergency transport services business, but to also pay JAS $25,000 in damages. The county is not, however, admitting any sort of guilt or wrongdoing.

The lawsuit, which was filed by JAS in August 2006 against the county and two county employees, claimed that proprietary information was stolen and the company's ability to operate in Duplin County was compromised when its online database was illegally accessed from a county computer in April 2006.

Former county Emergency Medical Services Director Curtis Brock and former JAS and county EMS employee Barbara Coman were charged with illegally accessing computers and computer trespassing in the online break-in.

The charges were filed after the State Bureau of Investigations found that Ms. Coman had used her old user-name and password to access Johnston's database to retrieve information regarding the company's non-emergency transports, including call types, patient names and locations, dates and distances.

She had used Brock's computer, apparently with his knowledge and encouragement.

After their roles were discovered and the investigation complete, Ms. Coman pleaded guilty to computer trespassing and testified against Brock, who also was found guilty of computer trespassing.

Neither received any jail time.

Also allegedly involved was former county Commissioner Larry Howard, although he was never charged with any wrongdoing.

The saga actually began in early 2006 when Howard and Brock allegedly approached Dr. Thomas Hunter, the then-owner and operator of Coastline Care, about the possibility of the county moving into the non-emergency transport business.

Coastline, like JAS, is an inter-facility and non-emergency ambulance transport service. Both have franchise agreements with the county.

The county, though, was looking to break into the business as a way to help pay for its emergency medical service, which had recently expanded into a countywide paramedic service.

The crux of the meetings between the county and Hunter was that if Coastline helped it enter the new area of business, his franchise would be protected.

During Brock's trial, Hunter testified -- based on his secret recordings of the conversations -- that they discussed the possibilities of removing JAS from the county and of Coastline and the county collaborating in order to ensure each other's viability.

And so, in the lawsuit, JAS alleged that the county's actions had caused the company to suffer "irreparable harm," and asked for damages in excess of $10,000 and for the court to prohibit the county from competing in the non-emergency transport field.

The county and Johnston have been discussing a settlement since at least October 2006.

In the settlement agreed to Monday, the county agreed:

* To adhere to the terms of all its relevant franchise agreements and ordinances.

* That it would not enter the non-emergency transport business, except for back-up services already authorized, at least until after July 1, 2009.

* That Duplin County, through its insurance company, will pay Johnston Ambulance Services $25,000.

* To issue a statement condemning the actions of Ms. Coman and Brock, but not admitting any guilt or liability on the county's part.

Only Commissioner L.S. Guy voted against the settlement.

"I think we were unjustly sued. I just don't think Duplin County did anything to be sued," he said.

He would not say whether he thought Brock and Ms. Coman deserved to be held liable for their actions, but he stressed that he did not think the commissioners and the county government had done anything wrong.

"I simply feel that the reason for this was to keep Duplin County from going into non-emergency transports," Guy said.

Commissioner David Fussell, however, said he believed that settling was the smart thing to do, even if it temporarily restricts a potential revenue stream for the county.

"To me, it was in the county's best interests," he said. "We have to look out for the interests of our citizens, and this does not admit any fault by the county government."