Monday, December 10, 2007

Court Secrecy

For Immediate Release
AAJ Press Room

AAJ Seeks Legislative Action to Stop “Court Secrecy”

Washington, DC— Invoked in countless legal settlements, secrecy provisions allow big corporations to prevent the public from finding out about dangerous products that kill and injure people, and the American Association for Justice is fighting back to stop agreements that endanger public health and safety.

As a condition of settling product liability cases, businesses often demand that injured individuals agree to secrecy provisions which prohibit them from disclosing any public safety hazards uncovered during litigation. Court secrecy allows corporate wrongdoers to evade real accountability when evidence of dangerous defects and corporate negligence is routinely covered up. Consequently, irresponsible businesses continue to profit from product sales at the expense of consumer safety.

Congress will be addressing the health and safety problems associated with court secrecy in an upcoming Congressional hearing chaired by Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI). Among those testifying will be Johnny Bradley of Pachuta, Mississippi, who suffered permanent injuries and became a widower in 2002 when the tread on his Cooper tire separated. Bradley’s attorney, Bruce Kaster, uncovered evidence of Cooper tire defects which had previously been sealed in other cases and continues to remain sealed to this day. Even at this hearing, Johnny Bradley cannot disclose the documented evidence uncovered by his attorney during litigation.

Bradley is also subject to a court secrecy order requested by Cooper Tires, which his attorney has challenged vigorously. Bradley believes these defects are so serious that Cooper would be forced to halt production if they were publicly known.The Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, has scheduled the hearing on “The Sunshine in Litigation Act: Does Court Secrecy Undermine Public Health and Safety?” for December 11, 2007 at 2:30 p.m. in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Chairman Kohl is expected to re-introduce the “Sunshine in Litigation Act” soon after the hearing. Previous versions of Kohl’s bill would have restricted judicial secrecy agreements that conceal dangerous product defects in product liability settlements.Also testifying at the hearing will be Public Justice Attorney Leslie Bailey, University of California law professor and attorney Richard Zitrin, and the Honorable Joseph F. Anderson, a Judge of the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.In 2002, then-Chief Judge Anderson led his fellow South Carolina federal court judges in voting unanimously to ban the filing of sealed settlements in their court.

Just prior to the vote, Judge Anderson stated, “Here is a rare opportunity for our court to do the right thing and take the lead nationally in a time when the Arthur Andersen/Enron/Catholic priest controversies are undermining public confidence in our institutions and causing a growing suspicion of things that are kept secret by public bodies.”

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