Easton Hospital is on the verge of being excused as a defendant in seven wrongful death cases related to homicidal critical care nurse Charles Cullen.
The hospital and its related corporate entities only need one thing: Cullen's signature.
Attorney Candy Barr-Heimbach, representing Easton Hospital, raised the issue during a hearing Tuesday in Easton on whether Northampton or Lehigh County is the appropriate venue for several of the 16 Cullen-related civil lawsuits or summonses filed in Pennsylvania.
"I don't know if they are going to let us in to speak to Mr. Cullen," Barr-Heimbach of Bethlehem told Northampton County President Judge Robert Freedberg.
Freedberg said Barr-Heimbach will have to decide what to do.
The seven cases involve patients who died after treatment at St. Luke's Hospital during Cullen's employment there. Cullen, of Bethlehem, had worked for a temporary employment agency at Easton Hospital before going to St. Luke's.
Martin Cohen, the Palmer Township attorney for plaintiff families in the cases, said a top St. Luke's official's contention that St. Luke's never asked Easton Hospital for a reference on Cullen made it difficult to argue Easton Hospital should be held liable for his actions at St. Luke's.
The St. Luke's patients were Shirley Fish of Stroudsburg; Debra Shachter of Bushkill, Pike County; Loretta Keller of Nazareth; Daniel Bohning of Bethlehem; Henry S. Shimer of Lower Saucon Township; Virginia Buttillo of Bethlehem; and Jose R. Vicoso Sr. of Hellertown.
Under state legal procedure, defendants seeking to be dropped from suits must get permission from all other defendants and the plaintiffs. In the Cullen-related civil cases, those defendants include other hospitals, the employment agency and Cullen himself.
Barr-Heimbach said she does not have signed permission from Liberty Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, either, but expects to have it soon. A spokeswoman for the Allentown center said she could not comment.
After the hearing, Barr-Heimbach said there is an alternative that would not require getting permission from Cullen or anyone else. She could petition the judge to issue an order that would remove Easton Hospital as a defendant. In that process, all of the plaintiffs and defendants would be notified, and Freedberg would decide whether the hospital should be dropped as a defendant.
Easton Hospital and its entities, including Two Rivers Health and Wellness Corp., successor to the hospital's former nonprofit owner, would still be defendants in the death of former Nazareth steelworker Ottomar Schramm and any other cases involving deaths at Easton Hospital. Two suits have been filed in Schramm's case, and Cullen has admitted killing him.
Also, the hospital has not been dropped as a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by Luis Ramos of Allentown, a patient who was treated at St. Luke's and lapsed into a coma but recovered. He is represented by attorney Peter Karoly of Allentown.
Excusing Easton Hospital hasn't changed arguments from plaintiffs' attorneys that the cases should be heard in Northampton County Court and not Lehigh County Court, even though the St. Luke's Fountain Hill site is in Lehigh and the deaths occurred after the patients were treated there.
There's a perception in the Lehigh Valley legal community that plaintiffs fare better in Northampton than in Lehigh County.
Cohen argued that under basic civil liability rules, the fact that St. Luke's does widespread business in Northampton County is adequate to try the cases there.
St. Luke's attorney Art Hankin argued that the state's new medical malpractice venue rules should apply, requiring that the cases be tried where the deaths occurred, in Lehigh County.
A central issue is whether Cullen's alleged administration of deadly doses of unprescribed medication to his victims qualifies as a "health care service" that would cause the medical malpractice rules to kick in.
The hospitals say the matter comes down to their supervision of critical care nurses, which comes under health care services.
"The killing of patients using drugs or other means is not delivery of health care services," said Easton attorney John Vivian, who represents the family of Marilyn J. Hall of Phillipsburg, a patient who died at St. Luke's Hospital during Cullen's employment.
Freedberg will weigh the arguments and rule on the venue.
While attorneys argued over the proper venue for the civil suits, Lehigh County prosecutors and investigators were planning a trip to New Jersey today to interview Cullen for the first time.
Lehigh District Attorney James Martin, accompanied by investigators with the state police at Bethlehem, will try to get Cullen to identify the patients he killed during his time as a nurse at St. Luke's Hospital, Lehigh Valley Hospital in Salisbury Township and Liberty Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
As part of his guilty plea last week to 13 murders at Somerset Medical Center, Somerville N.J., Cullen agreed to cooperate fully in exchange for prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty.
"Our investigators have been planning an approach of how to handle these interviews," state police Capt. Scott Snyder said Tuesday. "We're expecting tomorrow's interview to take several hours, and we expect that they will be the first of many interviews."
However, the interview will deal only with Cullen's work at Lehigh County medical facilities, Snyder said. Northampton District Attorney John Morganelli is scheduling a separate interview, at a later date, in which Cullen will be expected to identify any patients he killed -- besides Schramm -- or attempted to kill at Easton Hospital.
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