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Judge refuses to seal $3 million settlement

8/31/06 - The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA

Judge Ciavarella says public has right to know terms of medical malpractice cases.

By TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER

WILKES-BARRE - A Luzerne County judge on Wednesday approved a $3 million settlement for a medical malpractice case, but he refused to seal the settlement as had been requested by a state fund that will pay part of the money.

Judge Mark Ciavarella said he believes the public has a right to know settlement terms in such cases and will refuse to seal any that come before him, according to a transcript of a hearing held Wednesday.

The settlement was filed in the case of Walter Bryk, 42, of Dupont, who died on March 27 after undergoing heart valve replacement surgery at Mercy Hospital in Scranton.

Bryk's widow, Amanda Bryk, filed suit against Dr. Kenneth Wilcox, the hospital and several other related entities after an autopsy showed the death was caused because Wilcox had failed to properly "tie off" sutures he had made in Bryk's heart. That caused the sutures to rupture, killing Bryk instantly.

Amanda Bryk's attorney, Joseph Quinn of Kingston, negotiated the settlement. But final resolution of the case was held up because the state fund that provides excess coverage in medical malpractice cases objected to the filing of court papers that detailed how the $3 million would be structured for Amanda Bryk and the couple's 6-year-old son, Zachary.

Attorneys with the fund, known as the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Fund, or M-Care Fund for short, also wanted Ciavarella to seal the entire case, which would prevent the public from seeing paperwork associated with it.

During Wednesday's hearing Ciavarella rejected both requests.

"I am opposed to any confidentiality and I'm opposed to any sealing of any record in any medical malpractice case," Ciavarella said, according to a hearing transcript. "I believe the public has a right to know ... (and) physicians who practice in this area have a right to know what the terms and conditions of any settlement are, and for that reason I will not agree to seal any record for any matters that come before me."

In an interview Wednesday, Quinn said he could not comment specifically about Bryk's case. Speaking generally, he said he opposes the sealing of settlements, but often has no choice because defendants mandate confidentiality.

"I think it's important for the public to understand, there are cases that don't have merit, but there are some that do," Quinn said.

The M-Care fund provides secondary insurance coverage to physicians and certain other medical professionals. It is funded through surcharges placed on medical professionals, as well as revenue generated by a cigarette tax, said Melissa Fox, spokeswoman for the state Insurance Department.