Fighting Court Secrecy

“Secrecy kills,” says our client Rich Barber. He would know. Rich’s son was killed by a gun that fired without the trigger being pulled. When Rich bought the gun years before, he knew nothing about the rifle’s defect because Remington had been able to seal the court records—and hide the evidence—about both the trigger defect and the fact that the company had known about it for decades. Court secrecy in the form of sealing judicial records is being used more and more by corporations to limit their liability and protect their public image.

Public access to court records is rooted in in the notion that justice should be transparent and accountable. We as a society can only be assured that the justice system is truly fair and robust if we can see it working. Public Justice is exposing and preventing excessive secrecy in courts, to maintain trust in the justice system, and to keep corporations honest.

What Public Justice Is Doing

We are protecting your right to know about dangerous products that could injure or kill a loved one. We have unsealed evidence of dangers to public health and safety and helped injury victims oppose over-broad protective orders. When a jury found Cooper Tire at fault for a car crash caused by defects in its tires, Cooper tried to have portions of the trial transcript sealed, which would have allowed them to publicly claim that their tires were safe. We successfully argued that the transcript should remain public. We believe the public has a right to know about threats to their safety, and corporations should not be permitted to hide their unsafe track records in sealed court records.

Court secrecy is not limited to unsafe consumer products, however, and neither is Public Justice’s work. When Wyeth Pharmaceutical Company had documents sealed showing that it had engaged in medical ghostwriting to promote its drug, we successfully urged a federal district court judge to make the documents available to the public. We have also helped to expose deceptive business practices, such as an insurance company that trained its agents to deny coverage to victims of Hurricane Katrina, putting profits over honoring the policies customers had bought to protect their families. And we successfully challenged the sealing of over 500 records by payday lender AMG Services, which revealed how the company used a tangle of tiny hyperlinks and check-boxes to trick their borrowers into paying interest rates of 600% or more. Public Justice has also fought court secrecy on behalf of workers: When DirecTV tried to use a sham subcontracting arrangement to avoid paying their installers overtime in violation of federal law, a federal court found that they could be held liable. DirecTV tried to keep the details of their arrangement under seal, and we successfully challenged them, which will make it easier for workers in similar industries to hold their employers accountable. We believe that by keeping courts open and documents available to the public, corporations will be held accountable for underhanded tactics.

In just the latest example of how secrecy hurts workers, more than 100 women have joined a class action alleging that women who drove for one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S. were sexually harassed and assaulted by male drivers paired up with them for training purposes — and that supervisors refused to act, despite constant reports of this activity. But, potentially important court records in this case are sealed. With your help, we will take on their cause – and other cases where wrongdoers are using court secrecy to hide the truth, too.

When Public Justice’s work results in unsealed records, other attorneys representing victims of these defective products have the resources they need to bring successful cases. More openness allows other victims to learn that they have legal claims, and helps consumers make informed decisions about what companies to do business with. We also provide testimony about court secrecy in federal and state legislative bodies, and help them craft laws that empower judges to better protect the public’s right of access. We’re dedicated to making sure that our courts are not used to hide evidence of threats to public safety or corporate wrongdoing.

Click here to learn about our recent efforts around the ‘Public Right to Know Act’ (SB 1149), which would ensure Californians’ access to information that impacts public health and safety.

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