Hospital accused of altering records wants case sealed

A Pennsylvania hospital wants a judge to seal all records and issue a gag order in a long-running wrongful death suit that alleges hospital officials altered the medical records of a 44-year-old man who died after going to the emergency room with chest pain and breathing difficulties.

In an unusual legal filing weeks ahead of trial, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital argued a gag order is necessary because the man’s widow was quoted in a 2015 news release as saying her husband would be alive but for the “absolutely abysmal, incompetent treatment” he received at the hospital.

The hospital’s lawyers asked the judge to bar Lesley Corey or her representative from releasing any statements to the media because the resulting news coverage might bias jurors.

Going further, the hospital wants all legal filings in the case to be sealed until after the trial.

“To allow plaintiffs, her media consultant and/or other members of the media to publish information ... regarding the trial proceedings will be highly prejudicial” to the hospital, the lawyers wrote.

Corey’s lawyer responded this week by calling the hospital's effort frivolous and a waste of the court's time, pointing to “well-settled law” going back to 13th-century England that presumes open courts.

Attorney Michael Brophy said in a legal filing that the hospital presented no evidence that would justify its “extraordinary” effort to seal the public record, nor did it cite any federal or state court decisions that would bolster such an effort. And he said he'd already assured the judge that neither he nor his client intended to try the case in the media.

Corey’s 2015 lawsuit alleges hospital officials provided substandard care to her husband, Joseph Corey, then repeatedly altered his medical records in an effort to cover up their negligence. A forensic examiner hired by the plaintiff found at least a half-dozen sets of medical records for Joseph Corey that contained numerous inconsistencies and contradictions, the suit said.

The hospital denies wrongdoing. The case is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 5.

In court documents, Brophy said Joseph Corey went into cardiac arrest as he was left without care for up to 30 minutes in a bed 10 feet (3 meters) from the nurse’s station.

“Given this record, it is perhaps understandable that the defendant hospital would prefer to litigate its defense in a secret, closed tribunal far removed from the public eye,” he wrote.

A hospital spokesperson declined to comment Friday on pending litigation. An email was sent to the hospital's lawyers.

Wilkes-Barre General Hospital calls itself the largest community hospital in northeastern Pennsylvania, with 412 beds. Its emergency department sees nearly 60,000 patients per year. It is owned by Commonwealth Health, a unit of Franklin, Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc., one of the largest publicly traded hospital chains in the U.S.