By Unsealing Court Files, We Enable Consumers to Learn the Truth About Dangerous Products
Think about a gun that can accidentally fire without the trigger being pulled. Or a tire that is defectively designed, causing fatal rollover crashes when its tread separates. It may not shock you that dangerous products like these exist. But what is shocking is that the companies that make and sell these products are often able to keep members of the public in the dark about their dangers – even after the facts come out in a lawsuit.
How is this possible? The companies that produce defective—and sometimes deadly— products often petition the court to keep secret the evidence of their culpability, or require secrecy as a term of settlement. This leaves the public completely unaware of the dangers their products pose to public health and safety.
Court secrecy is one of the little known but powerful weapons corporations use to hide their mistakes and wrongdoing. For two decades, we have been fighting against court secrecy by challenging overbroad protective orders and sealing orders to expose corporate wrongdoing and to educate the public about dangerous products.
The human stories behind some of our court secrecy cases are heartbreaking.
In Aleksich v Remington, staff attorneys Leslie Bailey and Amy Radon fought on behalf of Rich Barber, a Montana father, to unseal a court file that showed Remington Arms Company was hiding evidence that the trigger mechanism of its popular Model 700 rifle was defective. The trigger involved in the sealed Aleksich case was the same design that had killed Rich’s 9-year-old son, Gus, after the Barbers’ Model 700 discharged during a family hunting trip without anyone pulling the trigger.
Rich learned of the Aleksich case only after Gus’s death, even though it had settled five years earlier. Aleksich arose when a 14-year-old boy – also in Montana — was shot in both legs after a Model 700 discharged without a trigger pull. When that case settled in 1995, Remington succeeded in having the entire court file sealed, effectively keeping the danger of the defective trigger mechanism a secret.
In 2012, we intervened in the Aleksich case on behalf of Rich. Working alongside Public Justice Foundation Board Member Bill Rossbach, we convinced the judge to unseal the entire court file, with exception of the settlement amount, which the Aleksiches requested remain confidential.
“There is no doubt in my mind that secrecy kills,” Rich has said. “I truly believe that by unsealing the evidence about Remington’s Model 700 rifles we can help prevent what happened to my son from happening to another family.”
In Toe v Cooper Tire, we challenged Cooper Tire’s attempt to seal the public records of a trial in which a jury found that the company had continued to sell a defective tire model after they knew it was deadly. The tire at issue caused a devastating 2007 rollover accident that killed one passenger and left another permanently disabled; a pregnant woman in the vehicle also miscarried. The plaintiffs sued in Iowa state court, and evidence used during the Toe trial – which was open to the public – showed that the company had known about the dangers, yet had continued to make the defective tires. A month after the jury found Cooper 100 percent at fault for the crash, Cooper filed a motion to seal the transcript of the trial.
We intervened on behalf of the Center for Auto Safety to oppose Cooper’s motion. Led by Leslie Bailey, we succeeded in unsealing the transcript. Our hope is that as it becomes harder to hide the facts from the public, Cooper will be compelled to make their tires safer so that no more lives are needlessly lost.
These two victories underscore the importance of ensuring that evidence of dangerous products be made available to the public. And they show how the work we do to keep our courthouses open to the public keeps the public safe.