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Judge must release hockey fatality settlement to WBNS

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Judge must release hockey fatality settlement to WBNS

  • The Ohio Supreme Court ordered a probate judge to release the details of a financial settlement involving the National Hockey League to a Columbus television station, ruling that a judge cannot create exceptions to the state Open Records Act.

April 16, 2004 — Records of a financial settlement awarded to the mother of a girl who died after being struck in the head by a puck at a professional hockey game must be released, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered Wednesday. It held that a judge cannot create a new exception to the Ohio Public Records Act.

“We have not authorized courts or other records custodians to create new exceptions to [public records laws] based on a balancing of interests or generalized privacy concerns,” the court said in its 6-1 ruling in favor of WBNS-TV of Columbus, Ohio.

As administrator of her daughter’s estate, Jody L. Sergent filed an application with Preble County Probate Judge Wilifrid Dues on Feb. 4, 2003, to approve the settlement and distribution of wrongful death and survival claims. Sergent settled with the National Hockey League, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nationwide Arena. The application contained the amounts of the settlement, but was sealed at the request of the parties involved.

David Cecil, the girl’s father, was not named in the open records suit, but details of settlements with both parents were released Wednesday.

The settlements, approved on Feb. 14, 2003, granted Sergent and Cecil a combined $1.2 million, The Associated Press reported. The parents’ attorneys received an additional $538,000.

Because Dues could not find an exception in the state open records law to keep the settlement details sealed, he reasoned that he “was authorized to ‘judicially create’ an exception” based on past cases, according to court records. Balancing the right of public access against the family’s right to privacy, Dues decided to seal the records.

However, when Dues used the application submitted by the girl’s family to decide on the settlement, those records became public and subject to the Ohio open records law, the Supreme Court ruled. The court also held that state and federal constitutional privacy protections prohibiting the release of personal information — such as Social Security numbers — did not apply here because Sergent failed to prove that she was at high risk for “victimization” if the financial details of the settlement were released.

WBNS-TV sued for access to the settlement records under the First Amendment and the Ohio Constitution as well, but the court declined to rule on those issues because it resolved the matter under the state Public Records Act. The Ohio Newspaper Association and Dayton Newspapers, Inc., filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the station.

The court additionally denied the station’s request for compensation for attorney fees, saying the degree of public benefit from the disclosure was “questionable.”

Brittanie Cecil, 13, died in March 2002, two days after being hit in the head by a puck while attending a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game in Nationwide Arena.

(The State ex rel. WBNS TV, Inc. v. Dues; Media Counsel: Charles J. Faruki, Faruki, Ireland & Cox; Dayton, Ohio) MG

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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