Hospital hearing removed to Federal court

Published 7:43 pm Monday, August 25, 2014

BELHAVEN — The future of Vidant Pungo Hospital may be left up to a judge in Federal court after Vidant Health and Pantego Creek, LLC requested it be removed from State court Monday.

Monday, at a Beaufort County Superior Court case that took place in Plymouth, Judge Milton Fitch, Jr. told the Town of Belhaven, Vidant Health and Pantego Creek, LLC the case had been removed to Federal court at a later date, upon Vidant Health’s request.

On Aug. 14, the parties met in Wilson for a hearing, in which the town was granted a temporary restraining order against Vidant and Pantego Creek, keeping them from removing equipment from the building, shutting off the utilities or demolishing the building, according to Belhaven Attorney John Tate. The order was granted until Monday’s hearing.

Tate said since the town filed a Title 6 Civil Rights complaint, a federal issue, against Vidant and Pantego Creek, the case may fall under federal jurisdiction. The hearing will now go to a federal judge, who will decide whether the case is a federal issue or whether it will return to a state courtroom. The town has removed the Title 6 complaint and inserted a North Carolina General Statute, which may aid in keeping it in state court, Tate said. Tate was not sure about where the federal proceedings would be held, but Greenville, Rocky Mount or New Bern are possible locations, he said.

During Monday’s court appearance, Fitch told Vidant Health and Pantego Creek, LLC that although the case had been removed from state court, the property’s status quo should be upheld until the jurisdiction question has been answered, Tate said. Fitch reminded the parties the case could possibly wind up back in his courtroom.

“It made us feel good on our side of things that he (Fitch) wanted to make sure that everybody understood that his order was to keep the status quo until these issues are passed,” Tate said. “We will now go before a federal judge, and we will have it out on a jurisdictional question. We would like to remain in state court.”

Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal said the town is prepared to conduct civil disobedience if Vidant Health or Pantego Creek, LLC go against Fitch’s order to keep the hospital in its present condition. Led by Civil Rights activist legend Bob Zellner, who accompanied O’Neal on his infamous walk to Washington, D.C., the town has been holding classes to educate citizens on how to properly and peacefully conduct civil disobedience such as sit-ins. The town will hold another class next week, O’Neal said.

O’Neal also said the town is currently pursuing grant money to get the hospital back up and running. The town board unanimously passed a resolution during an Aug. 18 emergency meeting, citing a law passed in 1947 that stipulates land where the hospital sits in Belhaven can only be used for a hospital. O’Neal said the town will use the law in an attempt to declare eminent domain, which will enable the town to take back the land from Vidant and Pantego Creek.

“We will pursue the land until we control it,” O’Neal said. “It is essential to obtain the property to get grants to get the hospital going again. I feel like as soon as an unbiased judge sees this situation and the things done in bad faith, justice will appear quickly. There’s always emergencies and we don’t have any emergency services except an ambulance to take us to Washington.”