Thanks to persistence and a lawsuit by a contributor to The West Virginia Record, a weekly legal journal and website, details of Cabell County’s largest lawsuit settlement ever are now known to the public.
County officials agreed in September 2008 to pay $3.6 million to the family of a pregnant Huntington woman, who emergency personnel were dispatched to assist after an epileptic seizure. But those county officials spent years trying to keep secret the details of the lawsuit that stemmed from the woman’s death before she reached the hospital and the death, the following day, of her baby.
Record contributor Lawrence Smith first asked for records detailing the incident and settlement in 2009, and filed suit under the state Freedom of Information Act in January 2010.
Records related to the case had been sealed by court order and a confidentiality agreement. But The Record prevailed in its years-long quest for disclosure thanks in large part to an open government battle fought 2 1/2 decades ago by another newspaper, The Charleston Gazette.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that documents in any lawsuit settlement involving a government agency are public records.
The favorable outcomes for governmental transparency, 25 years apart, are illustrative reminders of the dual benefits of advocacy and aggressive rights’ assertion under open government laws: a better informed public, and often a better, more-level playing field for future open government disputes.
Executive Director, NFOIC