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Terms of settlement agreement opened to press as public record

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         PENNSYLVANIA         Freedom of Information         Sep 20, 1999    

Terms of settlement agreement opened to press as public record

  • A newspaper won the right to review a sealed court transcript concerning a suit brought by the widow of a man killed during a police car chase.

A Pennsylvania trial court held in early September that The Scranton Times could review a sealed court transcript that contains terms of a settlement between the Newtown Township and the widow of a man killed during a police car chase, according to the Pennsylvania Law Weekly.

The Law Weekly reported that the court gave multiple grounds in support of its decision, including that the term “public record” in the state’s Right to Know Act covers the settlement documents, that nonparties can gain access to judicial documents even if those documents contain settlement terms, and that the parties never provided a sufficient rationale for keeping secret a settlement involving a public entity and issues of public concern.

Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act defines “public record” as “any decision made by a governmental agency which fixes the personal or property rights of any person.” The court determined that the settlement was a public record because the township had engaged in decisionmaking when it consented to the settlement, according to the Law Weekly. The court also noted that the settlement qualifies as a public record because the township may need to appropriate additional funds to cover higher insurance rates following the settlement of the case, the newspaper reported.

Mary Davis had sued the township for negligence after her husband’s death. After all parties recited the terms of a settlement on the record, an insurance company for one of the defendants successfully requested that the court seal the record. Two months later, the Times filed a motion to unseal the record.

(Davis v. Newtown Township)


© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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