No gag: Judge denies Clifton's request

Tongues wagged freely on Wednesday, May 11 after a federal judge shot down Clifton Inn's request for a gag order in the multimillion-dollar civil suits stemming from the fatal November 2003 fire at the historic hotel.

Plaintiffs' counsel hailed the decision.

"I consider it a point of honor," says Matt Murray, the attorney representing the family of Trish Langlade, a wife and mother of two who died, along with her colleague Billie Kelly, in one of Clifton's second floor guest rooms. Langlade's suit asks for $10 million; Kelly's seeks $20 million.

The hearing before Judge B. Waugh Crigler in U.S. District Court came less than three months after a February 17 Hook story in which Murray said that Clifton was mounting a "scorched earth defense," and, in a February 24 letter to the editor, accused Clifton manager J.F. Legault of lying about the Inn's safety standards before the fire.

As part of its defense, Clifton had filed several lawsuits of its own, including one against a candlemaker, one against a painter, and one against a guest of the Inn that night, which has since been dropped.

Though fire officials never determined the cause of the blaze, and no criminal charges were filed, the Fire Marshal's report revealed that many of the Inn's smoke detectors appeared to be without batteries at the time of the blaze and that some of the Inn's windows were painted shut. Handprints along the sooty walls and ceiling of the victims' room suggest they had groped for an escape route before succumbing to the smoke.

Clifton attorney Cameron Beck of the Richmond firm Morris & Morris declined comment after Crigler's decision. He had argued in court the importance of having "a jury pool that is not contaminated."

Beck charged that Murray's remarks to the Hook, and similar comments to the Daily Progress soon after, took "trial by press" to "notches unknown" and interfered with the Inn's right to a fair trial in court.

Arguing on behalf of Murray, attorney Richard Armstrong insisted Murray's comments would have no bearing on the outcome of the case.

"The pubic is intelligent enough to separate comments of fact from comments of opinion," he said. Armstrong also pointed out that the plaintiffs could claim that Clifton was also "contaminating" the jury by creating positive publicity about its reopening without mentioning the deadly blaze. In particular, he cited a picture on the front page of the Progress in early February of Clifton execs– including J.F. Legault– laughing and celebrating the Inn's reopening.

Crigler weighed the arguments, noting that Clifton's request for a gag order achieved just what they claimed they want to avoid: more press.

"By filing the case," said the judge, "you're doing nothing but stirring the pot."

Clifton, Crigler explained, needed to persuade him "why this conduct that's alleged here rises to a level that would require the court to take action." In civil cases, he said, "There are no restraints on speech unless comments in public become contemptuous."

But he didn't spare Murray entirely.

"Whether something is professional is one matter," scolded Crigler. "Whether something is legal is another."

Murray, now backed by a court decision, isn't toning down his rhetoric.

"The fire was in November 2003," he says. "Here we are in the middle of May 2005, and there is no defense to this case. So why are we still headed for a trial in August?"

A mediation hearing between the two sides is scheduled for June 6 in Judge Crigler's courtroom.