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Bedminster, Branchburg, Bridgewater Concerned Citizens Coalition, Inc. v. University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


May 31, 2007

BEDMINSTER, BRANCHBURG, BRIDGEWATER CONCERNED CITIZENS COALITION, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF MEDICINE AND DENTISTRY OF NEW JERSEY AND SOMERSET AIR SERVICE, INC., DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Docket No. SOM-L-492-06.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 2, 2007

Before Judges Wefing, C. S. Fisher and Yannotti.

Plaintiff Bedminster, Branchburg, Bridgewater Concerned Citizens Coalition, Inc. appeals from a final judgment entered on July 18, 2006, granting summary judgment in favor of defendants University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and Somerset Air Service, Inc. (Somerset Air). We affirm.

Plaintiff is a non-profit corporation, whose members are residents of the Townships of Bedminster, Bridgewater, and Branchburg in Somerset County, New Jersey. In March 2005, plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that UMDNJ operates an "emergency medical service helicopter response unit" pursuant to N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35 to -38, for the northern part of New Jersey, which is commonly referred to as NorthSTAR. According to the complaint, the NorthSTAR helicopter operated "[f]or a number of years" from the roof of University Hospital at UMDNJ in Newark; however, beginning on or about February 4, 2005, the helicopter has flown from Somerset Airport, which is owned and operated by Somerset Air. Plaintiff alleged that the operation of the helicopter from Somerset Airport was unlawful because it is not "hospital-based" as required by N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a.

Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, and cross-motions for summary judgment were filed by UMDNJ and Somerset Air. In support of its cross-motion, UMDNJ submitted a certification from Terrence Hoben (Hoben), who is employed by UMDNJ and supervises the operation of NorthSTAR. Hoben states that, with the exception of a flight nurse and flight paramedic, all other UMDNJ personnel associated with the unit are located at University Hospital in Newark. Hoben asserts that the Division of State Police (State Police) has responsibility for NorthSTAR's flight operations. State Police pilots operate the aircraft, and the State Police has responsibility for fueling and maintenance.

Hoben additionally states that UMDNJ is the recipient of a grant from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (Department) to operate NorthSTAR. Grant funds are used to pay the costs of developing and maintaining the aircraft. Those costs include the purchase of medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and supplies; the retention of an air medical coordinator, flight nurses, paramedics, dispatchers, and clerical staff, as well as related expenses. According to Hoben, NorthSTAR is maintained and operated by the Emergency Medical Services Department at University Hospital. Hoben states that during emergency missions, the flight nurse and paramedic on the helicopter "maintain constant radio contact with University Hospital trauma physicians and other health care personnel at University Hospital."

The summary judgment motions were heard on June 29, 2006. Judge Robert B. Reed filed a written opinion dated July 11, 2006, in which he concluded that N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36 does not require that the helicopter be physically located on the grounds of a hospital. The judge therefore denied plaintiff's motion and granted summary judgment to defendants. This appeal followed.

Plaintiff contends that because N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a states that the "emergency medical service helicopter response unit" must be "hospital-based," the helicopter itself must be "based" at a hospital for operational purposes. Plaintiff argues that NorthSTAR is not "based" at a hospital because its hangar is at Somerset Airport and the aircraft is dispatched from that location to provide required emergency medical transportation. Plaintiff contends that the helicopter's present "basing" at the Somerset Airport is not authorized by the plain language of the statute. We disagree.

The New Jersey Emergency Medical Service Helicopter Response Program (Program) was established pursuant to N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a. The Commissioner of the Department (Commissioner) is required to designate a mobile intensive care hospital and a regional trauma or critical care center, which must "develop and maintain a hospital-based emergency medical service helicopter response unit." Ibid. The term "emergency medical service helicopter response unit" is defined in N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c as a specially equipped hospital-based emergency medical service helicopter staffed by advanced life support personnel and operated for the provision of advanced life support services under the medical direction of a mobile intensive care program and the regional trauma or critical care center authorized by the commissioner.

In addition, each unit "shall be staffed by at least two persons trained in advanced life support and approved by the commissioner." N.J.S.A. 2C:2K-36b. The staff of each unit must "render life support services to an accident or trauma victim, as necessary, in the course of providing emergency medical transportation." Ibid.

Contrary to plaintiff's assertions, the term "hospital-based" in N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c and N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a does not clearly and unambiguously mean that the unit's helicopter must be physically located at and dispatched from the premises of a hospital. One definition of the word "based" is "having headquarters in or at" a certain place, such as "a Cleveland-based company." Webster's New World College Dictionary 114 (3d ed. 1997). In our view, this is the meaning of the word "based" that the Legislature intended when it used the phrase "hospital- based" in N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c and N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a. By requiring that the "emergency medical service helicopter response unit" be "hospital-based," the Legislature merely envisioned that each unit would be headquartered at a hospital. The Legislature did not intend to hamstring the operations of the Program by mandating that a unit's helicopter be physically located on the premises of a hospital and dispatched from that location.

Our reading of N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c and N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a is consistent with other provisions of the Act. We must interpret the relevant statutory language "in context with related provisions so as to give sense to the legislation as a whole." DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005) (citing Chasin v. Montclair State Univ., 159 N.J. 418, 426-27 (1999)). As we pointed out previously, an "emergency medical service helicopter response unit" is operated under the medical direction of a mobile intensive care program and designated regional trauma or critical care center. N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c. However, the helicopter itself is "operated, maintained and piloted by the" State Police, pursuant to regulations adopted by the Commissioner. N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35d.

Thus, the pertinent statutes reflect a distinction between the "unit" and its staff, which are operated by and under the direction of a designated regional trauma or critical care center, and the operations of the helicopter, which is established, operated and maintained by the State Police. In this particular statutory scheme, the unit is "hospital-based" because it is staffed and operated under the direction of a hospital. The unit is headquartered at the hospital but the statutes do not require that the unit's helicopter be physically located on and flown from the hospital grounds.

This interpretation of N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c and N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a also is in accord with the Legislature's purpose in establishing the Program. "When a statute is subject to more than one plausible reading, our role is 'to effectuate the legislative intent in light of the language used and the objects sought to be achieved.'" Velazquez ex rel. Velazquez v. Jimenez, 172 N.J. 240, 256 (2002) (quoting State v. Hoffman, 149 N.J. 564, 578 (1997)).

The legislation which established the Program was enacted in 1986. See L. 1986, c. 106 (the Act). The legislative history of the Act indicates that the Legislature "intended to provide a cost-effective emergency medical transportation service for residents of rural areas where mobile intensive care services are not available and for accident victims and critically ill persons for whom this service would be more appropriate than conventional ground transportation." Statement of Assembly Health and Human Resources Committee to Assembly No. 1806 (May 5, 1986).

Surely, the Legislature intended that the Program's helicopters would be physically located and dispatched from places that the Commissioner reasonably believes would best achieve the objective of providing cost-efficient emergency medical transportation services to the public. Although the Legislature required that the units be "based" at a hospital, it did not require that the helicopters be physically located and dispatched from the hospital premises because such a mandate could impair the unit's ability to respond expeditiously to medical emergencies.

Plaintiff argues, however, that comments by the Assembly Appropriations Committee regarding amendments to the proposed legislation support its reading of N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c and N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a. The Committee stated that it had "amended the bill to define the term 'critical care center' and to indicate that the helicopter response unit as well as the medical direction to the unit may issue from a critical care center or a trauma center." Statement of Assembly Appropriations Committee to Assembly No. 1806 (May 22, 1986) (emphasis added). However, the phrase "may issue from" is permissive. It merely indicates that the helicopter may be physically located and dispatched from a hospital; it does not mean that the helicopter must be operated in this manner.

Plaintiff also argues that the Department's regulations have "repeatedly and consistently" defined the term "hospital-based" to mean a facility that is physically located within a hospital or within its premises. Plaintiff cites regulations, pertaining to "cardiac diagnostic facilities," N.J.A.C. 8:33E-1.2; regional cardiac surgery centers, N.J.A.C. 8:33E-2.2; and sub-acute long term care units, N.J.A.C. 8:33H-1.2.

However, these regulations pertain to health care facilities that are distinctly different from the mobile units established by N.J.S.A. 26:2K-36a. Clearly, what might be considered "hospital-based" in the context of a cardiac diagnostic facility, regional cardiac surgery center, or sub-acute long term care unit would not necessarily be "hospital-based" with regard to an "emergency medical service helicopter response unit." Furthermore, under N.J.A.C. 8:43G-2.11(c), an ambulatory care facility may be "hospital-based" even though it is located off-site from a hospital. As the trial judge stated in his opinion, this regulation indicates that the Department has recognized that "hospital-based" does not mean "on-site" for all purposes.

In further support of its interpretation of N.J.S.A. 26:2K-35c, plaintiff relies upon a report prepared by UMDNJ regarding the proposed re-location of the NorthSTAR helicopter from University Hospital in Newark to Somerset Airport. UMDNJ's report considered various alternative locations for the helicopter. Plaintiff points to the statement in the report that there was a disadvantage in moving the helicopter "from UMDNJ to a non-trauma center location."

Plaintiff's reliance on the UMDNJ report is unavailing. The report does not support plaintiff's contention that the helicopter must be located at and flown from the premises of a hospital. Indeed, by considering various alternatives to flying NorthSTAR from University Hospital, the report reflects the view that such alternatives are permitted under the governing statutes.

Furthermore, the UMDNJ report details the history of the Program and notes that initially the helicopters operated out of the Mercer County Airport in West Trenton. After a few months, the NorthSTAR helicopter was dispatched from the Morristown Municipal Airport and this continued until 1990, when the helicopter began operations from University Hospital in Newark. The history of the Program as recounted in the UMDNJ report strongly suggests that the Legislature never intended to require that the Program's helicopters be physically located at and dispatched from the premises of a hospital.

We have considered plaintiff's other arguments and we are convinced that they are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in this opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).

Affirmed.

20070531

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