Can Chrysler Keep Court Records About A Possible Safety Defect Secret? We Don’t Think So.
By Jennifer Bennett
Imagine you walk outside and your car horn’s blaring, the windshield wipers are going, and the air conditioner is on . . . but there’s nobody in the car. Or worse, you’re cruising along on the highway and for no apparent reason, the engine just shuts off. Your car might be possessed. Or you might have a Chrysler.
Hundreds of drivers of Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles – all brands owned by Chrysler Group – have complained of problems that seem to be related to the cars’ power system. Some are wacky – like the windshield wipers turning on all by themselves; others – like the reports of cars stalling out on the highway – are downright dangerous.
As a result, the Center for Auto Safety recently filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking it to investigate whether there’s a defect in the vehicles’ Totally Integrated Power Module (that’s automotive for really important fuse box). How many vehicles have this module? Possibly millions.
Drivers from several states have brought a class action lawsuit, alleging not only that certain Chrysler models are defective, but that the company has known about – and concealed – the defect for years.
But lawsuits take a while. In the meantime, the plaintiffs have asked the court to require Chrysler to warn customers now. They argue that “the risk of serious injury” is just “too high to justify keeping Chrysler’s customers in the dark any longer.” “What makes Chrysler’s silence particularly dangerous,” the plaintiffs explain, “is that—[redacted].”
Yes, the reason the plaintiffs think the defect is so dangerous it needs to be dealt with right now is redacted. And the warning the plaintiffs want Chrysler to give? Also redacted. How about why Chrysler thinks it shouldn’t have to warn its customers? You guessed it. Redacted. Actually, Chrysler’s entire brief is sealed. So too are most of the documents that have been submitted as evidence in connection with the plaintiffs’ request.
Can Chrysler really keep these documents secret? Here’s what the law says: The public has a right to access court records. If a party wants to keep records sealed, they have to demonstrate “compelling reasons” for doing so. And, no, embarrassment is not a compelling reason. Neither is the possibility that once people know what’s going on, more of them will sue.
But, so far, Chrysler hasn’t given any reason at all for why these documents should be sealed, let alone a compelling one.
Yesterday, we filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the Center for Auto Safety for the sole purpose of asking the court to unseal the records. The plaintiffs have already told the court they think these documents should be publicly accessible. So do we. The public has a right to know whether (or not) there’s evidence that the cars they are driving might kill them.