Jury Still Out on Whether UCF Can Hide Records from Media

After losing its fight to push the trial date back Thursday morning in court, the University of Central Florida scored a late afternoon victory in the increasingly heated legal fight over liability related to the tragic death of former Knights football player Ereck Plancher — but it may only be a temporary win.

KnightNews.com exclusively obtained a order issued by Circuit Court Judge Robert M. Evans just after 4 p.m. Thursday, directing the Clerk of the Circuit Court “to seal and to keep the witness statements from public access” that UCF took from players who watched Plancher collapse and slowly start to die during an intense workout in 2008.

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Eyewitness accounts from Plancher’s teammates have become a major point of contention as the June 13 trial date approaches — especially in instances where players point fingers at George O’Leary, claiming the coach pushed Plancher too hard.

“Ereck had his head down, and (O’Leary) just blatantly called Ereck out like, ‘You are a disgrace to the team. How the hell are you on scholarship? That makes no (expletive deleted) sense,’” former UCF wide receiver Anthony Davis testified during a deposition taken by the plaintiff.

UCF has disputed Davis’ testimony about O’Leary and denies anything the head coach did led to Plancher’s death, saying safety is UCF’s top priority. But the questions surrounding what really went down during Plancher’s final workout are a big reason why the witness statements have become so heavily sought — by not only the plaintiff, but also news media seeking to uncover the details UCF has chosen to keep hidden regarding Plancher’s death.


See Plancher family lawyer Steven Yerrid speak about seeking the truth about Plancher’s death.
 


ESPN was among the first media outlets to request UCF release player witness statements. The sports network’s popular Outside the Lines program reported UCF did not even respond to its “requests for material related to player interviews.”

While UCF reportedly ignored ESPN’s request, UCF did respond to KnightNews.com’s public records request for those records filed Monday, claiming they’re exempt legal work product material — but stopped short of providing the full legal explanation UCF is required by law to provide. KnightNews.com explained UCF’s legal duties in a Tuesday afternoon email, and is still waiting for the full response from UCF to comply with the Public Record Law.

In the Tuesday email, KnightNews.com reminded UCF how it has a legal obligation to explain to KnightNews.com, in writing, the reasons it concluded all of the requested records are exempt from public record law to the point that UCF believes it doesn’t have to release even redacted, or partial portions of the statements.

Even though Judge Evans issued an order sealing the records in custody of the court be sealed, KnightNews.com could not find any legal justification that his order would extend to records in custody of UCF, or excuse UCF from providing the full response required by law when denying records.

Additionally, KnightNews.com made a different argument than the Plancher family’s attorneys did when fighting for the records. KnightNews.com’s email to UCF explains that the exemption UCF cited applies only to legal work product created exclusively for litigation or in anticipation of imminent litigation. KnightNews.com pointed out to UCF several media reports where UCF indicated it had conducted its own investigations and review of Plancher’s death for its own internal purposes. In other words, it appears the records at issue aren’t exclusively related to litigation, and thus don’t enjoy that exemption.

When requesting the records, KnightNews.com also cited this case law: Sun-Sentinel Company v. City of Hallandale.

“It is also important to note that a circuit judge refused to apply the exemption to tapes, witness statements and interview notes taken by police as part of an investigation of a drowning accident at a city summer camp,” KnightNews.com’s Tuesday email to UCF stated.

The controversy surrounding this public records request of UCF is not the only one in serious dispute. A week earlier, UCF refused KnightNews.com’s request for mediation with the Office of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi over records UCF refused to release regarding a complaint over how a student serving on the UCF Board of Trustees oversaw a $15 million budget of student fees.

KnightNews.com was considering possible legal action against UCF to force the release of those records, but has since put those plans on hold pending UCF’s response to the request for the Plancher records, as KnightNews.com only has a limited budget for legal expenses and would have to decide which dispute to litigate first.

KnightNews.com would likely again ask UCF to consider mediation with Pam Bondi’s office before filing a lawsuit to try and force the release of the Plancher records.

Check back to KnightNews.com for continuing coverage leading up to the Ereck Plancher trial and for updates on the public records dispute.