A Washington County judge Thursday heard testimony about whether a missing confidential settlement agreement was ever part of the official court record in a case involving claims by a Mount Pleasant family that Marcellus Shale development operations had damaged their health.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter are contending that the settlement agreement should have been in the case court records that Washington County Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca ordered unsealed last month.
Those records were sealed in a closed-door hearing from which Post-Gazette reporters were barred in August 2011. Washington County Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky, who has since resigned, sealed the case records at the request of Mark West Energy Partners, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream, Range Resources, and Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, who received a $750,000 settlement.
Peter Villari, the Philadelphia lawyer who represented the Hallowichs and their two young children, was subpoenaed by the newspapers and testified that he questioned the Hallowichs about the settlement agreement during that hearing in Judge Pozonsky's chambers. He said it was his intention that the complete settlement agreement be filed with the court to meet legal ethical standards and protect the Hallowich's minor children and that he left the agreement with the judge "on the assumption it would be filed."
Judge O'Dell Seneca gave the newspapers one week to file a brief on the arguments presented at the hearing and gave the shale gas companies another week to respond.