Court Secrecy Can Harm Consumers

Court records can be sealed to protect the privacy of individuals, like children in custody battles or for sexual harassment claims, but the same right often extends beyond matters of personal privacy and safety, allowing corporations to hide defects that have dire effects.

In recent news, there’s been a good deal of attention on sexual harassment claims that were settled or court documents that were sealed, preventing others who were also victimized by the same perpetrator to know they weren’t the only ones.

Beyond sexual harassment, it’s an all-too common tactic employed by corporations to prevent product recalls—all the while harming countless individuals in the process. As the Public Justice Foundation puts it “A company’s preference that the public not see evidence that might suggest the company knew about a deadly defect and just let people keep dying is not good cause.” Yet the courts often seal documents and prevent the public from finding out about potentially defective and harmful products.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently opened an investigation into reports of a defect tire from Goodyear, the G159 tire. Yet over the last few years, there’s been a number of lawsuits concerning these same tires and one even alleges that Goodyear’s attorneys used “‘repeated, deliberate decisions’ to ‘make misleading and false in-court statements, and conceal relevant documents,’” according to The Public Justice Foundation.

Thanks to court secrecy, the investigation into these tires by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may have been delayed and may have resulted in other injuries. While the investigation is still ongoing into these tires, it’s an example of when court systems’ secrecy has the potential to cause harm to individuals because of defect products.

Many companies request court proceedings and documents to be kept confidential during legal proceedings to protect their businesses—but in some cases this may be to keep news of defective products from reaching the larger public and causing a product recall. Recalls are serious matters for companies, often costing them not only financial cost but positive brand recognition. Smaller companies often can’t overcome the costs of a recall.

As a result, it’s no surprise that some companies will do whatever it takes to prevent a costly recall and using whatever resources are available to do that. The court system is playing an unlikely resource for businesses to prevent recalls from happening thanks to rules that allow companies to bar public access from court documents.

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