Gagged: Clifton says 'pipe down!'


Two months after Clifton Inn celebrated its reopening following a deadly 2003 blaze, its lawyers are requesting a closing of sorts– a closing of mouths.

"They want to shut me up," says Matt Murray, attorney for the family of Trish Langlade, a mother of two who perished in an upstairs Clifton guest room along with Billie Kelly, her colleague at the New York law firm Willkie Farr.

In a Motion for a Protective Order (commonly known as a "gag order") filed April 8 in U.S. District Court, Clifton attorney Cameron Beck of the Richmond firm Morris & Morris claims Murray has made "inflammatory and prejudicial statements regarding the defendants and their legal strategy."

While Beck declines to elaborate, the motion reveals that Murray's comments to the Hook in a February 17 story, "Clifton Hanger: Inn reopens as lawyers press claim," are at the heart of the matter.

In the piece, Murray claims Clifton has mounted a "scorched earth" defense of his $10 million suit by suing a candle-maker, a painting contractor, and– in a suit that has been dropped– another guest at the time of the fire.

Beck alleges that a letter to the Hook's editor by Murray and published in the Hook February 24 was equally damaging.

Beck's motion claims that Murray's statements amount to "trial by press" and "seriously prejudice the defendants' rights to a fair trial."

Murray fires back that "the motion does not deny the truth of what I said." Murray insists that Clifton general manager J.F. Legault's claim in a November 15, 2003 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, "The Inn had smoke alarms and was inspected and updated on all codes," is not true.

"Nothing I've said is a flat lie like that manager's," says Murray, noting that, in fact, the Fire Marshal's report shows that several of the Inn's smoke detectors appeared to be without batteries at the time of the fire.

Legault declines comment on the pending litigation, but he calls the implication that he is a liar "totally inaccurate."

"I think that comments like that are the reason attorneys would file such motions," he says of the request for a gag order.

Murray is unmoved.

"In my 30 years of practicing law in Charlottesville," he says, "this is the first time in a civil case I've seen a party attempt to muzzle the opposition."

At press time, Murray was preparing a counter-motion. The matter goes before U.S. District Court Judge B. Waugh Crigler on May 11.