A Reuters investigation concluded that judges regularly allow information pertinent to public health and safety to be filed under seal, even though court documents are, by law, presumed to be public. In nearly all jurisdictions, judges are required to provide an on-the-record rationale for allowing litigants to file information under seal – to protect trade secrets, for example, or an individual’s medical records – but they rarely do that.
In its analysis, Reuters found that information pertinent to public health and safety was filed under seal in 55 of the 115 biggest product liability cases consolidated in federal courts over the past 20 years. These mega-cases, known as multidistrict litigation (MDL), involved products used by millions of consumers.
The secrecy exacts a heavy toll. In just a handful of cases Reuters analyzed, hundreds of thousands of people were killed or seriously injured by allegedly defective products – including cars, drugs and guns – after judges allowed litigants to file under seal evidence that could have alerted consumers and regulators to potential danger.
It’s a measure of their role in maintaining court secrecy that in nearly all of the 55 big cases, it was plaintiff lawyers who filed the information under seal. That’s because of the way secrecy is baked into the process early on.
During pretrial discovery, when the opposing sides request information from each other to prepare their cases, the defendant usually won’t give plaintiffs any information until they agree to a protective order. In theory, these agreements are meant to keep under wraps potentially damaging proprietary or personal information. But in many cases, nearly everything ends up being stamped “confidential,” and plaintiff lawyers often just agree to the secrecy without complaint.
Later, when plaintiff lawyers begin filing motions or presenting their cases in court, the standard for imposing secrecy moves higher. Material obtained through discovery that is later submitted as evidence becomes part of the court record; as a matter of law, litigants must provide a reason for submitting such evidence under seal, and the judge must approve.
In most of the big MDLs, however, plaintiff attorneys actually cited the defense’s earlier claims of confidentiality to justify filing evidence under seal. Since judges rarely ask for a more specific rationale for the secrecy, documents marked as confidential remain so.
That’s true when the parties settle, which is how most product liability cases end. It can also be true after a jury decides in favor of the plaintiff. Sometimes, plaintiff lawyers even agree to keep evidence confidential that has already been aired in open court in other cases.
Lawyers who do fight secrecy seldom succeed. They challenged defendants’ claims of confidentiality for material relating to public health and safety in 23 of the 55 big cases Reuters analyzed. Judges nearly always refused to unseal the evidence.
Yet potentially harmful flaws in many products remain secret years after the first lawsuits are filed. Overly broad protective orders are a big part of the problem, legal experts and plaintiff lawyers said. In 45 of the 55 big MDLs Reuters analyzed, the protective order allowed most any document to be marked as confidential.