Parents of girl killed by puck receive $1.2 million

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The family of a girl killed by a hockey puck at a pro game split $1.2 million from a settlement reached with the National Hockey League and other groups, according to a copy of the settlement made public Wednesday.

The settlement approved in February 2003 by Preble County Probate Judge Wilfrid Dues resolved requests for damages from the family of Brittanie Cecil, 13, who was struck during a Columbus Blue Jackets game in 2002. It was the first such fatality in NHL history and prompted the league to require that every team hang netting to prevent injuries from flying pucks.

Dues released the settlement after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 6-1 Wednesday in favor of WBNS-TV, which had sued for details of the award.

Any record a judge uses to make a decision, such as approval of a settlement, is subject to the state public records law, the court said. "We have not authorized courts or other records custodians to create new exceptions" to the law, justices said.

The settlement with the NHL, the Blue Jackets and Nationwide Arena, where the team plays, provided $705,000 to Jody Sergent, the girl's mother, and $470,000 to David Cecil, the girl's father. The family stopped short of filing a lawsuit, according to the settlement.

The ruling was an unfortunate case of a television station's commercial interests prevailing over the family's wish for privacy, said Timothy Chappars, a suburban Dayton lawyer who represented the family.

"There was not a public outcry for people seeking the details," he said. "It just seems as if the news director decided it was important for his news show, for his reasons."

The public's rights to open government were at stake, countered Mike Curtin, president of The Dispatch Printing Co. of Columbus, which owns WBNS. The company also has a 10 percent stake in the Blue Jackets.

Curtin said it was clear Dues overstepped his authority in creating his own exception to the open records law.

"There has been an assault on public records both legislatively and judicially in recent years," Curtin said. "The news media in this state needs to be very aggressive in preserving our access to public records."

Curtin said the company's stake in the team didn't affect its decision to pursue the settlement.

Brittanie's brother and sister were included in the settlement, Chappars said. The family's attorneys received an additional $538,000, the settlement said. It also included $13,000 for funeral expenses.

Sergent, who lives in West Alexandria, declined to comment. A message was left with Cecil, of Hilliard.

The Blue Jackets said in a statement the team was disappointed by the decision. "We remain respectful of their wishes for privacy with regards to her tragic passing," the statement said, referring to Brittanie (pictured, above) and her family.

A spokesman for the NHL said he hadn't seen the ruling and couldn't comment.

The girl's parents sued Children's Hospital in 2003 claiming doctors failed to see the extent of Brittanie's injuries in time to save her. A trial is scheduled for February. The hospital declined to comment.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick dissented in the Supreme Court ruling, without comment.

"We're disappointed in the court's decision," said Mark Weaver, a Columbus lawyer who represented Dues, the probate judge, before the Supreme Court. "We think the law allows a judge to seal a record in a case where the family's privacy can be violated."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)