The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Friday that settlements in four wrongful death suits must be made public.
The suits involve B. Braun Medical and its subsidiary, Central Admixture Pharmacy Services. The companies were accused of selling a heart medicine which led to the deaths of several people.
When a reporter from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star tried to go to a court hearing in the wrongful death cases, he was turned away. The newspaper, along with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, then intervened in the court proceedings.
They argued that under Virginia law, copies of the settlements between the estates of those who had died and the drug companies were public court records.
The papers won in Spotsylvania County court, but the decision was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, said the estates and drug companies had not established a sufficiently compelling reason to keep the documents secret.
A court must make specific findings of fact to keep documents, such as the settlements, from the public eye, Judge Lawrence L. Koontz, Jr. wrote in the ruling. But, because Virginia law favors a presumption that such records are open, the court does not have to justify releasing the records in the same way, Koontz said.
The Supreme Court ordered settlements, including the financial terms, be made public without redactions by the lower court.
“Today’s ruling supports in clear and forceful terms the principle that business conducted in our public courts should be open to public scrutiny,” Ed Jones, editor of The Free Lance–Star, said in a statement. “The idea that wrongful death lawsuits could be settled without any detailed record runs contrary to a basic statutory presumption: that the public should have access to judicial records.”