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Press groups push for access to records on nursing home fire

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief today asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to review a decision…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief today asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to review a decision that allowed court records related to a high-profile nursing home fire to be sealed for four months.

The case, In re NHC-Nashville Fire Litigation, deals with a tragic nursing home fire that killed at least sixteen people. The parties filed documents obtained through the discovery process along with their briefs on a motion for summary judgment. Though the discovery documents were court records, the court refused to provide them to The Tennessean until after the motion was decided. An appellate court affirmed that decision last November.

The Reporters Committee, joined by Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, The Tennessee Press Association, and The Associated Press, supported The Tennessean’s request for review by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The brief noted that “[c]ourt records, including discovery documents filed with the court, are presumed to be open for public review.” It added that “[t]he secrecy below would be problematic in any case. But it is especially egregious in light of the public policy issues involved in this case, which deals with a horrendous nursing home fire that resulted in at least sixteen deaths, many injuries, and lawsuits on behalf of 32 victims.”

Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish said theTennessee Supreme Court should make clear to trial courts that discovery documents filed with motions that would end the case are public records, absent a specific showing that secrecy is necessary. “The trial court prevented the press from reporting stories about the safety of nursing homes without even explaining the need for secrecy,” Dalglish said. “I can’t imagine very many situations where the need for public access is greater.”