District Judge Steven J. Adreasen issued an order on Friday, Feb. 24, directing the county hospital in Denison to release the settlement agreement that ended a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital.
The order came after a court hearing requested by the Carroll Daily Times Herald. Collin Davison, an attorney from Mason City, represented the newspaper and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council during the hearing.
The settlement grew out of the death of Carole Christiansen, who underwent a colonoscopy at the Crawford County Memorial Hospital in Denison.
Christiansen’s estate sued the hospital, and the case ended with a negotiated settlement between the estate and the hospital’s insurance carrier.
Hospital administrator Bill Bruce had refused numerous requests from journalists and a Denison resident to release a copy of the settlement agreement. He cited as justification the probate judge’s order sealing the contents of Mrs. Christiansen’s probate court file.
Iowa’s public records law specifically prohibits secret settlements.
Chapter 22.13 of the Iowa Code says, “When a government body reaches a final, binding, written settlement agreement that resolves a legal dispute claiming monetary damages, equitable relief, or a violation of a rule or statute, the government body shall, upon request and to the extend allowed under applicable law, prepare a brief summary of the resolution of the dispute indicating the identity of the parties involved, the nature of the dispute, and the terms of the settlement, including any payments made by or on behalf of the government body and any actions to be taken by the government body. … The settlement agreement and any required summary shall be a public record.”
Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said in a statement after the court hearing on Friday:
“The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is grateful that after 10 months of ignoring its legal obligations, the Crawford County Memorial Hospital has finally released the terms of the settlement in the litigation growing out of the tragic death of Mrs. Christiansen.
“We just regret that the FOI Council and the Daily Times Herald had to go to the expense of hiring a lawyer to achieve what Iowa’s public records says in crystal-clear language — that government entities like the Crawford County hospital cannot enter into secret settlements in lawsuits.”
Evans continued: “The settlement was reached with the Christiansen family last April. Her estate was not closed and sealed until June. That provided two months for the hospital to release the settlement documents. But it did not.
“Once the documents in the probate court file were sealed, the hospital took the inexplicable position that the order sealing the court file trumped the open records law and documents that were in the possession of the hospital. The probate file included details about the Christiansens’ real estate holdings, but the Crawford County Recorder’s Office never tried to put the family’s real estate records in the courthouse off limits to the public.
“Iowa’s law that prohibits secret settlements involving government was written by the Legislature because lawmakers were keenly aware that the public should not be kept in the dark about these matters — even if the details prove embarrassing to government entities.”
Here is the Carroll Daily Times Herald’s report on the court hearing and settlement agreement:
DTH wins court fight
for secret settlement details
The Denison hospital revealed a $500,000 wrongful-death settlement on Friday that it had kept secret for months after the Daily Times Herald threatened to take legal action against the hospital to force its disclosure.
Crawford County Memorial Hospital and its insurer paid the money to the estate of Carole Christiansen, a 67-year-old Arion woman who died of complications from a botched colonoscopy at the hospital in 2014.
As part of the agreement, the hospital paid $100 to the estate “to keep the existence and terms of this settlement and the underlying negotiations confidential,” even though public entities are barred by law from engaging in confidential settlements.
Bill Bruce, the hospital’s chief executive, said this morning that he doesn’t know whether a hospital employee drafted the agreement or reviewed it before it was approved. Further, he refused to ask his employees whether any of them reviewed it.
“I don’t have a need to do that research,” he said. “I didn’t write it. I can tell you that. Bill Bruce didn’t write it.”
Brad Bonner, the hospital’s general counsel, did not respond this morning to an email asking whether he had reviewed the settlement before its approval.
A judge approved the settlement in April and sealed it from public view. Since then, hospital officials have denied multiple requests from residents and reporters to reveal the details of the settlement and claimed the judge’s order barred them from doing so, even though the confidentiality clause contained an exception that allows its public release to comply with Iowa law.
Bruce said he was not aware of the exception and has repeatedly dismissed claims that he was violating the state’s open records law: “We’re caught in the middle on this.”
The Times Herald filed a court motion in December that asked a judge to direct the hospital to release the settlement, and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council joined the fray and paid for an attorney to represent the newspaper. On Friday, a judge issued an order — that had been agreed upon by the hospital, Christiansen’s husband and the Times Herald — to release the settlement.
“The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is grateful that after 10 months of ignoring its legal obligations, the Crawford County Memorial Hospital has finally released the terms of the settlement in the litigation growing out of the tragic death of Mrs. Christiansen,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the council.
“We just regret that the FOI Council and the Daily Times Herald had to go to the expense of hiring a lawyer to achieve what Iowa’s public records law says in crystal-clear language — that government entities like the Crawford County hospital cannot enter into secret settlements in lawsuits.”
The hospital has a recent history of secrecy. It fought for a year to keep the names of volunteers who drive patients to and from the hospital confidential but relented in July when the Iowa Public Information Board ruled the names were a public record.
A Denison resident had requested the names because one of the volunteers was a convicted sex offender.
The hospital also has refused to provide full supporting documents for its board of trustees meetings in advance of those meetings. The law does not require it to, but other local government entities publish the documents online several days in advance of their meetings.
“Among the more important charges of a newspaper is holding your government officials accountable,” Times Herald co-owner Douglas Burns said. “We take seriously our responsibility to drag public documents from the darkness when needed. In this era of cost-cutting and slashes to newsrooms, far too many media organizations are looking the other way on matters like this instead of directing limited resources toward meeting a solemn responsibility.
“Our readers and the west-central Iowa public can rest assured that the Daily Times Herald, as long as it is owned by this family, will remain a vigilant watchdog of your tax dollars and all government bodies. As much as anything we’ve done in recent years, this episode demonstrates that.”
Evans also pledged to wage future fights in court for the release of public records when necessary.
“Iowa’s law that prohibits secret settlements involving government was written by the Legislature because lawmakers were keenly aware that the public should not be kept in the dark about these matters — even if the details prove embarrassing to government entities,” he said.