1. Sealing deadly court files:
In the wake of continuing disclosures about General Motors’ failure to acknowledge critical safety issues related to faulty ignition switches, there’s a looming issue that has not been addressed: How litigation settlements negotiated by private parties can result in court-sanctioned cover-ups that endanger the public.
We now know that there were several cases in which the families of people who died in crashes after ignition switches failed quietly received cash settlements from GM.
In return for the cash, the plaintiffs not only promised to withhold the settlement details but also agreed with GM that the court files would be sealed. In some cases, those sealed records included documents and transcripts of pre-trial deposition testimony that contained evidence gathered about the dangers of the faulty switches.
As this editorial in USA Today points out, “Outrageous as it sounds, such secrecy is routine. Powerful companies and institutions regularly suppress information about public risks, ranging from incompetent doctors to abusive priests to defective products.”
One reason the secrecy is “routine” is that both parties involved benefit. The plaintiff — and the plaintiffs’ lawyers — get a quick cash payout. The defendant gets the case killed without the bad publicity and the wave of suits that could come from a public trial, let alone an adverse jury verdict.