2010-11-18 / Front Page

Palmer Lawsuit Dismissed

Two counts against one defendant remain
By Jean Snyder STAFF WRITER

More than three years after its filing, a judge has sustained preliminary objections seeking to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed against 16 local individuals by Fulton County Medical Center former CEO Diane Palmer.

On October 6, 2010, Judge Eugene E. Fike, II, a Somerset County judge who was appointed to hear the matter due to possible conflicts of interest locally, handed down his ruling on preliminary objections filed by each of the defendants’ attorneys. Although most of Palmer’s claims were dismissed, Fike did leave the door open in some instances for amended complaints to be filed within 20 days. However, as of press time, none have been filed.

The defendants in the suit were Jamie Greathead, Fulton County News publisher; Jean Snyder, Fulton County News reporter; Donald Bard; Stanley Kerlin, Esq.; Howard Kaplan; Helen Overly; Drs. Sharon Martin, William Milroth, James Rintoul and Michael Donahoe; John C. Duffey; Carol Jean Johnson; and commissioners Dan Swain, Ellis Yingling and Bonnie Mellott Keefer. The case against Nancy Younker was dismissed with prejudice and, according to the court’s opinion, Younker was also stricken as a party because she was not named in the caption of the lawsuit.

Palmer was elected to the FCMC Board of Directors in 1992 and became chairman of the board in 1996. In 2005, after the departure of former CEO Robert B. Murray, the board asked Palmer to assume the CEO position which she did in July 2005. Palmer submitted her resignation on August 21, 2006.

In her suit against the “News,” its publisher and reporter, Palmer alleged that a series of articles written about the meetings organized and held in 2006 contained “defamatory statements” against her.

In his ruling, Judge Fike addressed approximately 10 of these articles written by Snyder in 2006. He sustained the “News” attorney’s preliminary objection on the grounds of legal insufficiency. He dismissed all counts of Palmer’s case against the paper’s publisher and reporter with prejudice, meaning that the court’s October 6 order amounted to a final dismissal of the lawsuit against the “News” defendants with no right to amend.

Fike concluded that all of the statements in question that appeared in the “News,” except one, were not capable of defamatory meaning or constituted protected opinion. According to Fike’s opinion, the remaining statement, while it could be considered defamatory, was not supported by sufficient allegation of facts to provide a basis for finding of actual malice under the applicable constitutional standard and, in fact, the court ruled that Palmer did not meet her burden of establishing actual malice relative to any of the challenged statements. The judge also determined that Greathead and Snyder were entitled to the protection of Pennsylvania’s “fair report privilege.”

The Court dismissed counts against Bard, Kaplan, Duffey, Overly, Johnson and Younker with prejudice, but did not dismiss two counts against Johnson because, according to the opinion, Johnson did not move to dismiss these counts.

The Court also dismissed with prejudice counts filed against the then Fulton County commissioners, but Palmer was granted 20 days to file an amended complaint as to one of the counts.

Two counts against all four doctors and Kerlin were dismissed with prejudice, but again Palmer was granted leave to file an amended complaint regarding five additional counts.

All claims for punitive dam- ages were dismissed and stricken.

At the time of the lawsuit’s filing, Palmer’s attorney filed it in Dauphin County and asked that it be heard there. All defendants filed preliminary objections challenging the venue. The Dauphin County court ruled in favor of the defendants, saying that it should have been filed in Fulton County. Palmer appealed that ruling to the Superior Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.

On April 5, 2010, three days before arguments on the preliminary objections were scheduled before Fike, Palmer’s attorney filed a motion to withdraw from the case and the motion was granted. Palmer was granted a continuance to allow time to retain new counsel, but a further request for a continuance was denied and argument was held on June 25, 2010, and Palmer appeared without counsel.

Additional time was then allowed for Palmer to obtain counsel and file a brief, but no new appearance by counsel or brief was filed.

Fike’s rulings brings to an end a more than threeyear battle that in the meantime saw Fulton County Medical Center complete a new 100,000 square-foot hospital, nursing home and campus just west of town.

The recent addition of a new specialty services and administration building has allowed the hospital to consolidate its many previous offices and sites into one central location.

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