O'Brien and Ryan, LLP - Attorneys at Law
Legal News

Court Declines to Permanently Seal Settlement Petition in MedMal Action

Bookmark and Share

In Page v. Moses Taylor Hospital, et al.,[1] the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas denied defendants’ motion seeking to permanently seal plaintiffs’ settlement petition as well as all related filings and orders, finding that the defendants did not satisfy their burden of showing that their interest in sealing the settlement terms outweighs the presumption in favor of open access to judicial records.

This matter arose from the plaintiff-mother’s eclamptic seizure when her twins were 33.4 weeks gestation, after which the plaintiff-mother developed placental abruption that allegedly caused the twins to be stillborn. The plaintiff-mother also suffered hypovolemic shock, tachycardia and massive hemorrhaging, which required her to undergo an emergency hysterectomy and removal of her fallopian tubes and ovaries.

During the course of the case, the plaintiffs submitted an expert report regarding the pain and suffering of the twin fetuses. Defendants filed a motion in limine to preclude evidence of fetal pain and suffering, which was overruled.[2] Defendants also filed pre-trial motions regarding plaintiff-mother’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress and bereavement damages, both of which were also denied.

Thereafter, the parties reached a settlement agreement after the jury was selected. Plaintiffs filed a petition for court approval of the settlement, its allocation, and its distribution. Defendants then filed a motion seeking to permanently seal plaintiffs’ settlement petition and attached exhibits, as well as any subsequent related filings and orders. In support of their motion, defendants argued that “no legitimate public interest would be impaired in the sealing of the settlement terms, and no countervailing consideration should override the parties’ interests in confidentiality… [S]ealing of the terms of the settlement agreement would promote fairness and efficiency, in that it would encourage amicable settlement…The disclosure of the terms of the instant settlement agreement risks unnecessary and inappropriate influence on other cases involving defendants associated with the defendants in this matter.”

The court, however, was unpersuaded. In his opinion, Judge Terrence R. Nealon applied the common law approach to analyze the defendants’ request to seal the judicial records. Citing several Pennsylvania Superior Court cases,[3] the opinion notes that there is a presumption in favor of public access to court records. The court performs a balancing test of the factors in favor of access and the factors against it, and the moving party has the burden of showing that his or her interest in secrecy outweighs the presumption for open access. The opinion noted that, “while the general interest in encouraging settlement based upon a particularized need for confidentiality is a factor to be considered, it is outweighed by the public’s right of access if the settlement agreement involves information important to public health and safety or matters of legitimate public concern.”

Judge Nealon was unpersuaded by the defendants’ arguments that sealing the records would promote amicable settlements and would prevent influence on other malpractice cases involving the defendants. The opinion emphasizes that medical negligence claims, malpractice insurance premiums, and their affect on health care access are subject to public debate and legislation. Additionally, the opinion considered the newsworthiness of this case. It had already been the subject of media coverage in several instances, including the pre-trial motions regarding evidence of fetal pain and suffering and the plaintiff-mother’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The court found that the defendants did not satisfy their burden of showing how the disclosure of the terms of settlement would cause increased harm to the defendants so as to outweigh the public interest, particularly since the negligence allegations against the defendants had already been disseminated in the press.

Though the court denied the defendants’ motion to seal the petition for settlement and related filings, it temporarily sealed the petition and order in the event that the defendants sought an appeal of the order. The seal will be lifted if no timely appeal is filed.

[1]  2016 Pa. Ct. Comm. Pl. (unpublished opinion) (August 18, 2016).

[2] http://www.obrlaw.com/medical-malpractice.php?Court-Permits-Expert-Testimony-Regarding-Fetal-Pain-Suffering-Claims-89.

[3] Com. v. McKown, 79 A.3d 678 (Pa. Super. 2013); In re J. B., 39 A.3d 421, 434 (Pa. Super. 2012); Zdrok v. Zdrok, 829 A.2d 697, 699 (Pa. Super. 2003); Storms ex rel. Storms v. O’Malley, 779 A.2d 548, 568 (Pa. Super. 2001), app. denied, 570 Pa. 688, 808 A.2d 573 (2002).

<< Back to list page

Hickory Pointe
2250 Hickory Rd, Suite 300
Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462
Phone: (610) 834-8800
Fax: (610) 834-1749