Town of Belhaven votes to appeal hospital lawsuit decision

Published 7:17 pm Tuesday, November 10, 2015

BELHAVEN — The lawsuit regarding the closure of Vidant Pungo Hospital is headed to the state Court of Appeals.

The Belhaven Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 at Monday night’s meeting to appeal the decision to throw out the lawsuit against Vidant Health and Pantego Creek LLC.

In early October, State Superior Court Judge Stuart Albright dismissed the lawsuit brought by the town and the state NAACP, a lawsuit that alleges breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and unfair trade practices.

Aldermen Vic Cox and Tony Williams were the two dissenting votes at Monday’s meeting.

Mayor Adam O’Neal said he doesn’t think Albright had any interest in hearing their side of the story and made an unfair decision to dismiss the case.

“Judge Albright sat in court that day of the hearing and looked awkward and asked questions that were unseemly,” he said, referencing the judge’s repeated questions at the Oct. 6 hearing about what the town obtained in the event of fraud and the lawyers’ confusion over the questions.

O’Neal said state NAACP lawyer Allen McShirley is confident about the lawsuit’s return to court.

The decision to appeal means the continuation of a two-year court battle, which began with mediation, then weaved in and out of state and federal courts and involved switching judges due to complaints about Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch, according to O’Neal.

Vidant Health, which acquired Vidant Pungo Hospital in 2011 and closed it due to deficits in 2014, has maintained that it acted in good faith and did not breach any terms of the contract with Belhaven. Pantego Creek LLC, which manages the hospital property, has expressed its desire to keep the hospital closed, as the group does not feel as though it can operate profitably.

Christine Mackey, communications manager at Vidant, said although the hospital is closed, Vidant is still committed to health care in the area, investing more than a million dollars and also building a 24-hour, $4.2 million clinic to serve patients.

The facility will provide immediate care, X-ray technology, lab work and in the event of an emergency, helicopter access to transport patients.

But O’Neal said the town needs emergency care, not another clinic, especially when the nearest hospital is about 30 miles away in Washington. The Town of Belhaven is attempting to obtain the property through eminent domain.

To announce the town decision to appeal the lawsuit, there will be a press conference today at 11 a.m. in front of the Beaufort County Courthouse. Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, is expected to attend, according to O’Neal.

“We had a judge we don’t feel like was fair,” O’Neal said. “The appeals court is very unbiased.”

“We have to, in this situation where lawyer games have been played, we have to appeal this lawsuit.”