Court Secrecy | Take Justice Back

Court Secrecy

Irresponsible corporations have found a way to keep dangerous products on the market and continue to profit while Americans’ health and safety are threatened.  These corporations and manufacturers use secrecy agreements in litigation to hide their wrongdoing and avoid responsibility when their products have harmed, injured or even killed Americans.

As a condition of turning over any material to injured consumers and their attorneys, manufacturers of faulty products regularly insist the information be kept secret– even if the product remains on the market and the information could warn the public of a potential health hazard.

Whether it’s dangerous cribs, defective drugs or exploding tires, court secrecy endangers consumers and allows corporations to hide wrongdoing.  Americans have a right to know about hazardous and defective products.

More than 20 states have recognized this problem and improved regulation of court secrecy.  Florida and Montana have taken the lead by requiring disclosure of public hazards.  But there is still more work to be done.

The Facts:

  • A 2004 Federal Judicial Center study suggests that, in 2001 and 2002, settlements may have been sealed in as many as 500 personal injury cases in the federal courts.  Each case could potentially be hiding another dangerous product or a pattern of negligent conduct.  [Federal Judicial Center]
  • Court secrecy enabled Mattel to hide dozens of Polly Pocket-related injuries and two deaths over a year-and-a-half before the company finally issued a recall of the toys.  [Boston College]
  • In the late 1990s, defective Firestone tires caused at least 271 fatalities – most of which involved cases settled secretly.  Firestone continued settling cases for at least three years before recalling 6.5 million defective tires.  [The New York Times]

Federal Legislation:

The Sunshine in Litigation Act (S.2364/ H.R.4361), as considered in the 113th Congress, would help prevent unnecessary injuries and death by shedding light on dangerous products.  Both State and District court systems have taken steps to limit court secrecy - the Sunshine in Litigation Act would simply ensure that federal courts also consider public health and safety matters before issuing protective orders, sealing court records, or approving secret settlements.

The Sunshine in Litigation Act would: 

  • Make the public aware of vital, life-saving information.  It gives federal judges additional discretion to evaluate settlements that hide important safety information from the public.
  • Help prevent injuries from dangerous products and decrease litigation.  By restricting secrecy, companies would be unable to hide significant product hazards and would be motivated to correct these hazards earlier instead of waiting until more product related deaths and injuries occurred.
  • Make courts more efficient while protecting the public.  Court secrecy restrictions adopted in various courts have not burdened judicial systems or impacted the number of cases resolved in these courts.