On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-10488-00.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cuff, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Fisher and Baxter.
Antonia Verni suffered catastrophic injuries in an automobile accident. She is now a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic who will require significant medical care her entire life. She was two years old at the time of the accident in 1999. Her mother, Fazila Verni, also suffered serious injuries in this accident. She has recovered from these injuries. The driver of the car that collided with the car driven by Antonia's father was intoxicated, having consumed copious amounts of alcohol in the parking lot of Giants Stadium prior to a football game and inside the stadium during the game.
Antonia and her mother commenced a civil action against the driver of the other vehicle, the dispenser of alcoholic beverages inside the stadium, the owner and operator of the stadium, the National Football League and its commissioner, two other bars at which the other driver stopped after the game, and the driver's companion. Several defendants settled the claims against them prior to trial. A jury trial accompanied by extensive publicity commenced on December 20, 2004. In mid-January 2005, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Antonia and her mother in the aggregate amount of $109,667,750 against defendants Harry M. Stevens, Inc. of New Jersey (Harry M. Stevens), the holder of the license to sell alcoholic beverages at Giants Stadium, and defendant Aramark Services Management of New Jersey, Inc., Aramark Corporation, and Aramark Sports and Entertainment Group, Inc. (Aramark). Harry M. Stevens was a wholly owned subsidiary of Aramark. This court reversed the verdict and remanded the matter for a new trial. Verni ex rel Burstein v. Harry M. Stevens, 387 N.J. Super. 160 (App. Div. 2006), certif. denied, 189 N.J. 429 (2007).
Prior to commencement of the new trial, Antonia and her mother reached a settlement with Aramark. They applied for an order to seal the amount and terms of the settlement but not the fact of a settlement. The motion was unopposed but plaintiffs presented the testimony of Antonia's guardian ad litem who explained the reasons for the application. On June 7, 2007, the judge entered a consent order that provided "the balance of all proceedings in this matter shall be filed under seal and the Clerk is hereby instructed to accept any and all filings under seal."
The order was accompanied by an opinion in which the judge explained his ruling. He related that Antonia's father, Ronald Verni, had misappropriated funds received from settlements earlier in the litigation from other defendants. He found that protection of the settlement funds was an important government interest. He also noted that a history of domestic violence required issuance of a restraining order. He reasoned that sealing the record of the settlement minimized the chances that Antonia's father, who is estranged from the family, would return to New Jersey. For these reasons, the judge concluded that "sealing the balance of the record . . . is clearly justified." That opinion and the tape of the reading of the opinion were included within the sealing order.
On October 10, 2007, Public Citizen filed a motion to intervene and to unseal the record. By order dated November 16, 2007, the court granted the motion to intervene but denied the motion to remove the seal. The judge released his previously sealed June 7 opinion to enable the parties to "understand the rationale and reasons why the settlement and the hearings themselves must remain sealed." It is from this order that Public Citizen appeals.
Public Citizen argues that the common law, rules of court, and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution recognize the need for open court records and court proceedings. It also contends that a court record or court proceeding may be sealed only to protect a substantial interest, and the Verni family's articulated interest in privacy does not justify the June 7 order. Public Citizen also maintains that the order is overbroad and that the countervailing public interest in dissolving the seal is strong.
Antonia and her mother respond that the order was appropriate under the circumstances of this case. They emphasize that they have identified a specific harm that militates against indiscriminate dissemination of information about the ultimate disposition of the case. Aramark argues that the sealing order advances the individual and public interests in assuring the preservation of the settlement fund for Antonia's needs.
There has been some uncertainty about the scope of the June 7 order. Plaintiffs suggested that it was meant to seal only orders, documents and testimony relating to the settlement of the personal injury matter and was not intended to encompass a fee dispute between plaintiffs' initially retained attorney and substituted trial counsel. Public Citizen argued that all proceedings from June 1, 2007, when the "friendly" proceeding*fn1 was conducted and Antonia's guardian ad litem testified, through the ultimate resolution of the fee dispute remained sealed.
The terms of the June 7, 2007 order are not confined to the settlement of the personal injury claims of Antonia and her mother. Public Citizen filed a motion to supplement the record with certain documents, including a copy of the docket sheet for this matter. We have granted that motion and the docket sheet confirms our interpretation of the June 7 order. That is, all proceedings and ...