Court: 'Hutch' can't get Times documents
The Seattle Times does not have to turn over documents or other communications between a staff reporter and the relatives of people who died in a leukemia experiment at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the 1980s, a federal judge has ruled.
Lawyers for the cancer center had sought to compel The Times to produce "any and all communications" between reporter Duff Wilson and families who brought lawsuits, which say "The Hutch" had failed to adequately inform patients of the risks involved in the cancer experiment.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled Wednesday that Wilson and the newspaper had not overstepped the "bounds of journalism," as argued by The Hutch, when Wilson provided information to those who had filed suit against the cancer center.
Joseph Hassett, a Washington, D.C., attorney for The Hutch, declined to comment on the ruling.
Under the First Amendment, journalists generally can't be forced to disclose information gathered while reporting news stories, and Lasnik ruled that Hutch attorneys offered no support for their theory that Wilson's sharing of information with the plaintiffs had voided that privilege.
Lasnik wrote that The Hutch has not exhausted other, reasonable means to obtain the information, such as taking depositions from the plaintiffs in the cases.
The ruling went on to say that "the Court has concerns regarding the propriety of defendants' motion in light of the obvious failure to exhaust other discovery options. The motion and the subpoena that preceded it were, in this context, coercive insofar as they could be expected to have appreciable adverse impacts on The Times and its reporters."
The Hutch sought The Times' information as it prepares to defend itself against eight lawsuits filed over the leukemia experiment, in which at least 80 of 82 participants died. The deaths occurred from 1983 to 1985.
The experiment was an attempt to prevent a secondary condition called graft-vs.-host disease but was abandoned after there were high levels of graft failure and relapses of the cancer.
The first lawsuits in the case were filed after publication in March 2001 of a Seattle Times investigative series, "Uninformed Consent: What patients at 'The Hutch' weren't told about the experiments in which they died."