NJ EMTs accused of punching patient in ambulance say it was self-defense
A lawyer for the three EMTs, who have had their certifications suspended, said they were defending themselves against a “violent attack”
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — New Jersey health authorities have suspended the certifications of three emergency medical technicians on accusations they assaulted a combative patient by punching him several times while in the back of an ambulance in Jersey City this summer.
When the EMTs were later interviewed by their employer, RWJBarnabas Health, they denied striking the patient during the July 4, 2020 incident. However, each admitted in a second interview that they indeed punched the patient, according to the state’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, in the Department of Health.
The EMTs - James Piro, John Bonvenca and James Han – also submitted reports about the incident that portray themselves as victims of an assault from a combative patient, and do not detail them punching the patient, the EMS office wrote in October letters suspending their certifications.
“In order to effectively care for all patients, clinicians must exercise good judgment and treat patients with dignity and respect. Indeed, striking a patient is never an appropriate response to a situation and is deemed abuse of a patient, a prohibited act under [state law],” each letter says.
That’s not the way it happened at all, and the state has the entire incident backwards, a lawyer representing Piro and Bonvenca told NJ Advance Media.
Piro and Bonvenca came to the aid of fellow EMTs and paramedics and were assaulted repeatedly.
“They were in fact the victims of a violent attack on July 4, 2020,” lawyer Peter C. LaGreca said. The lawyer said the patient – whose name is not in any documentation in the case – was later arrested by Jersey City police and charged with assault.
“And now, they are being revictimized by RJW Barnabas and the Dept. of Health which have wrongfully taken their livelihoods and reputations from them,” he said.
Piro and Bonvenca have filed emergency actions with the state to have their licenses reinstated, and have filed a lawsuit against their now former employer alleging negligence for improperly training them and putting them in a position in which they became victims of workplace violence, LeGreca and the suit allege.
Piro and Bonvenca say in their suit they were fired by RWJ Barnabas Health, which contracts with Jersey City to provide emergency medical services for the city.
Han could not be reached for comment.
A spokesperson for RWJBarnabas said the company does not comment on pending litigation. On the July 4 incident, the spokesperson said: “It is the policy of RWJBarnabas Health not to comment on matters involving any patient.”
The state health department also declined comment on the certification suspension because it’s an active investigation, a spokesperson said.
It’s unclear if any authorities are aware of the alleged assault of the patient. The Jersey City Police Department did not return a request for comment from NJ Advance Media.
And Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said: “We are not aware of any complaints filed in Superior Court on this matter.”
The suspension letters and statements Piro and Bonvenca made in legal papers agree on two things: the patient was combative and thrashing around after freeing his hands, and the ambulance had to pull over on the way to a hospital when the crew called for emergency assistance.
From there, the stories are different.
The state suspension letters say witnesses describe Han, Piro and Bonvenca arriving and entering the ambulance and repeatedly striking the patient, who later arrived at the hospital with swelling on his forehead and his right eye swollen shut.
The state alleges Han admitted throwing four to six punches, “and you only stopped because your glasses were knocked off your face and you could not see well.”
A witness reported Bonvenca, the EMS station supervisor, punching the patient and then kneeing him in the face several times.
Both Bonvenca and Piro, the acting tour supervisor on the shift, then instructed others “to lie or file vague statements to cover up the assault.”
In court papers seeking to have their licenses reinstated, Bonvenca and Piro say the patient was the instigator of the all the aggression.
Although not there, the initial call was for a fall victim, and Bonvenca wrote that the man was already uncooperative and fell from a carrying device on the way to the ambulance and struck his head on concrete causing facial injuries.
They both describe responding to assist the original two ambulance crews, who had pulled over at Grand Street and Fairmount Avenue, and being confronted with a violent struggle - a tangle of as many as seven EMTs or paramedics trying desperately to restrain a large, belligerent and intoxicated man who continually punched crew members and screamed obscenities and threats.
They were all in danger of serious injury the entire time, but managed to re-restrain and calm the patient before police backup arrived, they said.
Bonvenca, a seven-year EMT, wrote that he did punch the man once, in the left side of his head in an attempt to distract him, not injure or harm, so they could restrain the patient and get him to the hospital. It was not abuse, he wrote.
“This course of action was only pursued in order to protect my safety, the safety of the crew and the patient’s own safety in light of his presenting a danger or harm to himself and/or others,” Bonvenca wrote.
Piro wrote that he even discussed letting he man leave the ambulance, as he was trying to do, but they decided not to because he was, “violent, not wearing clothes, and too intoxicated to make his own decisions.”
Both said Han’s glasses flew off when the patient struck him in the face. They both denied lying in their reporting on the incident.
After the patient was restrained, police arrived and escorted the ambulance to the hospital and officers told the EMTs and paramedics to report the patient’s assault on them.
(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.