Gannett Appeals Ruling For OC In Drowning Victim Name Case

SNOW HILL — A media company’s suit against the Town of Ocean City over the release of the name of a teenage drowning victim was formally closed in favor of the resort last week, but an appeal was quickly filed in the case.

In January, a Worcester County Circuit Court judge opined Ocean City and the police department had met their burdens under the Maryland Public Information Act to withhold the name of a 17-year-old drowning victim, who perished in the surf at 92nd Street last June 13, but the case remained open and was proceeding toward an April trial date. However, last week the court ruled on a joint motion for the entry of final judgment, essentially closing the case at the Circuit Court level.

“There are no issues of fact in this case,” the court docket entry from last Wednesday reads. “The defendants, the Mayor and Council of Ocean City and the Ocean City Police Department, have the right to withhold the records requested by the plaintiff, Gannett Company, containing the identity of the 17-year-old who drowned on a public Ocean City beach on June 13, 2014 pursuant to the Maryland Public Information Act.”

The docket entry brings a measure of closure to the case, at least at the local level.

“The plaintiff, therefore, does not have a right to access the records; plaintiff’s request to enjoin the defendants from withholding public records containing the identity of the drowning victim and to produce the records is denied,” the docket entry reads. “The plaintiff’s request for attorney’s fees is denied and the clerk is directed to close the case.”

However, on the same day, Gannett, publisher of The Daily Times among other local publications, filed a notice to appeal with either the Maryland Court of Appeals or Court of Special Appeals. It remains uncertain this week which state court would hear the appeal, but the protocol is for the Court of Special Appeals to take up the case first.

In September, the Daily Times and its parent Gannett Company Inc. filed suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the police department seeking to force the town to release the drowning victim’s name. In January, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Thomas C. Groton entered his opinion for the town on a motion for summary judgment.

On June 13, a 17-year-old male from Parkville drowned in the ocean at 92nd Street, marking the second time in less than two weeks a teen visiting the resort was lost in the sea. The town did not release the victim’s name, citing a request for privacy from the teen’s family. Most local media outlets did not pursue the issue, respecting the family’s wishes.

Following the incident, Gannett Company Inc. submitted a Public Information Act request to the OCPD seeking the victim’s name, but it was denied by the department, which stood behind the wishes of the family not to release the information. Gannett then filed a second request asking the resort to point out where in the law a special exception based on privacy was included.
Rebuffed again, Gannett filed suit, seeking to force the resort to release the records that included the victim’s name. Gannett maintained in an opinion piece the issue dealt more with the town’s ability to pick and choose what information it chooses to release or withhold than the victim’s actual name.