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Hoffman v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company

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  1. Court Access

Case Number: 2017 CV 4959 CV

Court: Court of Common Pleas, Dauphin County Civil Division

Client: The Patriot-News/PennLive

Motion to Intervene and Unseal Filed: Oct. 23, 2023

Background: On Sept. 5, 2016, Trisha Hoffman was killed after the car she was driving out of a boat ramp in Halifax, Pennsylvania, collided with a train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway Company. Hoffman’s husband, Cory Hoffman, sued Norfolk Southern and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in 2017 for wrongful death and negligence. In his complaint, Hoffman claimed that the railroad company and the state agency failed to maintain a safe crossing and in doing so violated regulatory and statutory obligations that caused his wife’s death.

The case never made it to trial. In 2022, the parties reached a settlement, and the court granted their request to file the settlement records under seal.

The Patriot-News/PennLive, a newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, published a series of articles on the accident and the aftermath of Hoffman’s death and its impact on the surrounding community. But the seal on the settlement records has prevented the newspaper from learning more information about what happened. In June 2023, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission denied a PennLive reporter’s public records request for a copy of the settlement it reached with Hoffman, stating that it “was deemed confidential by the court and is therefore exempt from disclosure.”

On behalf of PennLive, Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke and Heather E. Murray of the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic filed a motion to intervene and unseal the settlement records. The motion argues that the newspaper has a right to access the records under the First Amendment and common law, and that none of the parties has overcome the high burden to justify sealing them.

Quote: “To this day, the public does not have a full accounting of how this railroad crossing had such ‘serious deficiencies’ that experts claim failed to meet national minimum safety guidelines. Since the case settled in advance of trial, the settlement record contains the only significant accounting of who must be held accountable for the public safety failure that occurred here,” attorneys for PennLive argued in a brief in support of the newspaper’s motion to intervene and unseal. “While Plaintiff Cory Hoffman filed a joint petition requesting that the settlement records be filed under seal to shield ‘very sensitive financial information,’ the compelling interest in public safety here, as well as the interest in government accountability, clearly outweighs confidentiality concerns.”

Co-Counsel: Heather E. Murray of the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic

Updates: On June 25, 2024, the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas denied the Patriot-News/PennLive’s motion to intervene and unseal the settlement records. 

Filings:

2023-10-23: PennLive’s motion to intervene and unseal

2023-10-23: Memorandum of law in support of PennLive’s motion to intervene and unseal

2024-06-25: Memorandum opinion

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