A King County judge ruled The Seattle Times is entitled to recover legal costs and can seek monetary penalties against the university for the violations.
King County judge ruled this week that the University of Washington broke the state’s public-records law when it redacted key details from medical-malpractice settlement agreements provided to The Seattle Times in response to two public-records requests made by the newspaper in 2015.
Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen ruled Monday the UW “improperly” redacted and withheld “nonexempt information” — including names of physicians and claimants, dates and other key details — from hundreds of pages of settlement agreements drafted by the UW Medical Center and other university-affiliated health-care organizations to resolve malpractice and negligence claims between 2010 and mid-2015.
The UW must now produce “complete versions of the requested settlement agreements without redacting information other than taxpayer, Social Security and financial-account numbers,” the judge ordered.
Eric Stahl, the attorney who represented The Times, said the ruling “recognizes the public has a legitimate concern in lawsuits and claims against public agencies.
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“Government entities can’t settle claims — in some cases for millions of dollars — and keep the details secret,” he added.
Inveen also partially sided with the UW, agreeing with the university on a dispute over information contained in a separate inventory about patients’ malpractice claims. The judge ruled the inventory records represented “health-care information” protected from disclosure under federal and state privacy laws.
“We are pleased that the judge has agreed with us that federal and state patient privacy statutes do not lose their power to protect when confronted by the state’s public records act,” Norm Arkans, UW associate vice president of media relations and communications, said in an email Wednesday.
The university is still reviewing the judge’s finding that the UW violated the state Public Records Actwith its redactions to the settlement agreements “to ensure that we meet our obligation to protect patient medical records,” Arkans added.
Inveen’s ruling identifies The Times as the “prevailing party,” noting the newspaper is entitled to recover legal costs and can seek monetary penalties against the UW for its violations. The court will determine the amount for costs and whether per diem penalties are appropriate at a later date.
The Times initially submitted its requests for the university’s medical-negligence claims records in 2015. The UW responded by providing some of the settlement records, but with multiple redactions that rendered the cases all but void of specific detail other than settlement amounts.
The Times filed suit last year, asserting the public has a clear interest in disclosure of such records, because they involve negligence claims against a major public medical provider and public settlement payments amounting to tens of millions of dollars.
The UW argued the redactions made in the records complied with an exemption to the state’s records law that allows deleting certain information that “would violate personal privacy or vital government interests” from disclosure.
Government agencies can use the “personal privacy” exemption if disclosing such information “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person” and if it such information “is not of legitimate concern to the public.”
But Inveen found the settlement agreements were written generally and didn’t contain “actual medical records.” The judge added a person who makes a claim for damages against a public entity “cannot reasonably expect” to keep key details of the claim and settlement secret.
“Further, settlements from public funds for health care provided by public institutions are of legitimate concern to the public,” Inveen wrote. “This proposition is even stronger for those patients who file lawsuits, which are presumed open.”