A state trial court in Pennsylvania has held that two newspapers could have access to settlement documents in an oil and gas drilling case that had been sealed. Hallowich v. Range Res. Corp., No. 63-C-201003954 (Wash. Cnty. C.P. Ct., Pa. 3/20/13). The sealed proceeding involved allegations that defendants’ drilling violated state environmental laws and interfered with the plaintiffs’ property rights. The case settled after pre-suit discovery. Because the settlement affected the rights of their minor children, the plaintiffs sought a hearing before the court to obtain approval of the settlement. The two newspapers sought and were denied access to the hearing and subsequently filed a petition to unseal the record.
After the petition’s initial denial, the decision was reversed on appeal and returned to the trial court. On remand, the trial court held that corporations have no protected right of privacy under Pennsylvania law and that the settling defendant corporations therefore had no basis on which to argue that the record should remain sealed. The court determined that unsealing the case did not affect the confidentiality agreement between plaintiffs and the settling defendants, because “the parties remain just as gagged from speaking of the terms and conditions of the settlement as they were prior to the unsealing.” The judge also held, “The press and public’s ability to obtain that information by another route, i.e. the common-law right of access to our courts, does not impair the defendants nor the [plaintiffs’] obligations.”