Court of Appeals orders disclosure of settlement in wrongful death suit

Principle of public access to records was violated in Lexington Market case

July 25, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that court officials must make public the secret terms of the settlement of a civil lawsuit filed against the city by the family of a man fatally shot by a police officer outside Lexington Market.

Ruling in a case brought by The Sun, the Court of Appeals said in a unanimous decision that a Baltimore Circuit judge erred in agreeing to requests by both parties to close the courtroom when the terms of the settlement were read aloud and to seal the document detailing the settlement.

"The trial judge violated the common-law principle of openness regarding public access to court proceedings and court records," Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge wrote in the court's opinion.

Courtrooms can be closed and documents sealed only under certain circumstances authorized by state law or court rulings, such as the law excluding the public from juvenile proceedings, Eldridge wrote.

The case involved a settlement reached in January 1999 between the city and the family of James Quarles III, who was killed outside Lexington Market in August 1997 in a police shooting captured on videotape by a bystander. The family filed a $200 million wrongful death suit against the city.

The settlement was reached as a jury was being selected to hear the case before Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock, who agreed to close the proceedings.

Mary R. Craig, the attorney for The Sun, said the terms of the settlement in the Quarles case should be available in the court file within 30 days.

Craig said the ruling was the first by the state's highest court involving public access in a civil case - previous rulings have involved criminal cases - and would have application to civil cases across the board, not just those involving a governmental body. "I think it's a broad statement that courtrooms and files belong to the people, not judges and litigants," Craig said.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said he had not seen the ruling and could not comment.

A. Dwight Pettit, the attorney for the Quarles family, said he had "no problem" with the ruling but declined to disclose the terms of the settlement until the court document is unsealed.

Pettit said both sides felt keeping the settlement confidential was "practicable and reasonable" - the family because they felt it was a "private matter," and the city because it felt it offered protection for future negotiations.

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