BACK TO COURT: Belhaven, Vidant lawsuit heads back to state court

Published 8:39 pm Monday, March 23, 2015


BELHAVEN — A federal judge has returned the lawsuit against Vidant Health and Pantego Creek LLC  to state court. It’s a move Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal calls a victory for the Town of Belhaven.

O’Neal confirmed the move Thursday after hearing from Belhaven attorney Dahmian Blue. The state court case will be held sooner than if it was held in federal court and requires a local jury trial, according to O’Neal.

“It’s a huge win for the town,” O’Neal said. “The most important thing is reestablishing our hospital in Belhaven, which three different business consultants have said can be profitable.”

In August, Vidant Health and Pantego Creek LLC met the Town and the NC NAACP 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 Pungo District Hospital building, shutting off the utilities or demolishing the building. The order was granted until a hearing a week later in Beaufort County Superior Court  in Plymouth where Judge Milton Fitch Jr. notified the parties that the case had been removed to federal court per a request by Vidant.

Vidant maintained the Title 6 Civil Rights complaint was a federal issue that should fall under federal jurisdiction. As a result, the Town and NC NAACP removed the Title 6 complaint and inserted a North Carolina General Statute. At the time, then Belhaven attorney John Tate said the change might aid in keeping it in state court.

If the courts rules in the town’s favor, Vidant could be required to pay damages of up to $6 million, O’neal said. Not only has the closing of Pungo District Hospital created a lack of an emergency room in Belhaven, but it has also caused significant economic damage to the town and degradation to the hospital building, O’Neal said.

Since the hospital’s closure, the town has sought solutions to reopening the hospital and has contracted with New Frontier Hospitals, operated a pair of healthcare management professionals, which will assume management of the hospital pending a $6 million USDA loan the town applied for in January. The money secured through the loan will go toward purchasing and replacing equipment needed to operate the hospital, as well as working capital to reopen it.

O’Neal said the town will continue to push for the reopening of the hospital.

“The people of Belhaven and the surrounding communities will not go away until justice is served here. Our people cannot sit around and not exhaust every possible avenue to fix this problem. Our families are at risk and that’s the most important thing on this planet. We’ll continue to fight. We’re just going to fight harder. We aren’t going away because we’re reminded about this issue often due to the possible prevention of deaths in our community by an operating hospital.”

According to O’Neal, there is no word on when and where the state court case will be heard.