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Calif. city pays $800K over firefighters refusing to enter care center

Rialto firefighters stated they were following COVID-19 guidelines when they refused to enter as a patient was in cardiac arrest

By Joe Nelson
San Bernardino County Sun

RIALTO, Calif. — The city of Rialto has settled for $800,000 a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the daughter of a man who died after suffering cardiac arrest at a post-acute care center that firefighters refused to enter due to alleged coronavirus protocols.

Rialto Fire Capt. Josh Gilliam, firefighter-paramedic Matt Payne, and fire engineer Mark Brady said they were abiding by state COVID-19 guidelines when they ignored pleas from staff to enter Rialto Post Acute Care Center just before 8 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2021, while responding to a 911 call.


Joseph Angulo, 56, had been recovering at the center from injuries he suffered in a traffic collision when nursing staff found him unresponsive in his room and called 911. As the three firefighters stood outside the entrance, nursing staff inside the facility, assisted by Rialto police Sgt. Ralph Ballew, scrambled to push Angulo’s bed outside as a nurse sat atop Angulo performing chest compressions. The pandemonium was captured on Ballew’s body-worn camera.
Once outside, Angulo was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where he died.

Rialto Post Acute Care Center is a 170-bed, licensed skilled nursing facility that provides post-hospital care to patients requiring rehabilitation or who are unable to care for themselves. The center, however, lacks advanced life-support capabilities, requiring paramedics to perform such functions.

Angulo’s daughter, Bridgette Angulo, filed a $100 million wrongful death claim against the city in March 2022, followed by a lawsuit in August 2022. The city approved the settlement during a closed-session meeting on March 12, and Angulo signed the agreement on April 3, City Councilman Ed Scott said on Monday, April 8.

Angulo’s attorney, William Shapiro, could not immediately be reached for comment.

“We continue to mourn the patient’s death and our prayers are with the patient’s family in hopes that we may all heal through settlement of this unfortunate matter,” Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson said in a statement Monday.

Gilliam and Payne were fired and Brady was suspended following the incident. Their actions were detailed in a blistering 487-page report released by the city in November 2022.

While the firefighters maintained they were strictly adhering to COVID protocols, Rialto Fire Chief Brian Park said at the time that local or state emergency medical service providers, including Rialto’s, were never prohibited from entering skilled nursing facilities to provide care, especially for high-acuity patients or facilities needing assistance.

Additionally, Park said that due to widespread vaccination and improved knowledge, many COVID-related mandates had been lifted by November 2021.

The three firefighters appealed their terminations and suspension, and on Jan. 31 arbitrator Kenneth A. Perea reversed the city’s decisions, concluding that while a “preponderance of the evidence” supported a finding that the three were liable for misconduct, their punishment was unreasonable.

Perea ordered that Gilliam and Payne be reinstated to their positions with full seniority restored and that they receive back pay. He also ordered that Gilliam and Payne’s discipline be modified to a one-week suspension without pay, according to the 28-page ruling.

As for Brady, Perea ordered that his suspension be revoked and expunged “from all files and records” and that he receive back pay for the 10 work shifts he missed.

Perea said in his ruling that the three firefighters had responded to two other calls at Rialto Post Acute Care that evening, and apparently entered the facility, but they had grown frustrated by the time they received the third call regarding Angulo.

Gilliam, according to Perea’s ruling, was working overtime that night and assigned to Payne’s and Brady’s crew, which was from another station.

At 6:12 p.m., Gilliam’s crew was dispatched to the center regarding a patient complaining of shortness of breath. The patient, however, declined to be taken to the hospital. At 7:24 p.m., Gilliam’s crew was called back to the center, this time regarding an 81-year-old patient experiencing abdominal pain. However, Gilliam’s crew, not the ambulance crew, transported the patient to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, according to Perea’s ruling.

About 20 minutes later, Gilliam returned and, according to Perea’s ruling, “re-entered” the center, asking the nursing supervisor “Why are we being called on these inter-facility transfers?” The nursing supervisor told Gilliam that the ambulance service, American Medical Response, did not respond to “code 2" calls for service, which are urgent but noncritical calls and do not require lights or sirens to be on.

Attorney Jason A. Ewert, who represented the firefighters during the arbitration, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

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