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Firestone records to stay sealed pending further review

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         ELEVENTH CIRCUIT         Secret Courts         Sep 6, 2001    

Firestone records to stay sealed pending further review

  • An appellate court panel ruled that evidence filed in a wrongful death lawsuit against the tiremaker is not necessarily available to the public.

A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Circuit) on Aug. 28 overruled the decision of a lower court judge who opted to unseal documents in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Firestone.

The panel sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo for further hearings on whether the sealed documents contain “trade secrets” and whether their disclosure would serve the public interest.

The underlying lawsuit was a wrongful death action filed against Firestone by the family of Daniel Van Etten, a college student who was killed when his Ford Explorer overturned possibly because of tread separation on his Firestone tires. The case was one of many that received national attention and prompted an inquiry into whether Firestone tires contained a defect that threatened public safety.

During litigation, Firestone sought to seal some of its records, claiming they contained trade secrets. The sealing order was granted at first. As similar lawsuits arose against Firestone around the country, news organizations urged the court to unseal the records to determine whether the documents showed a threat to public safety.

Alaimo granted the motion to unseal the documents, finding that they were public records because they were filed with the court and used as evidence. Firestone appealed.

The appellate panel did not find that the records must remain sealed, but it found that the standard applied by Alaimo in unsealing the documents was erroneous.

The 11th Circuit ruled that the media’s common law right to inspect court records is not unlimited. The court concluded that the common law right of access should not apply to records if they are filed with the court only to support a discovery motion, reasoning that discovery is primarily a “private” endeavor.

“This means that the Firestone documents filed in connection with motions to compel discovery are not subject to the common law right of access,” the court declared. However, the court found that the common law right of access would still apply to records used as evidence in dispositive motions, such as motions for summary judgment.

The panel remanded the case to Alaimo and instructed him to use a “good cause” standard to determine whether the documents attached to discovery motions should be unsealed. The “good cause” standard would require the court to balance the media’s interest in access to the records with Firestone’s interest in keeping the information confidential.

(Van Etten v. Firestone; Media Counsel: Robert Rothman, Arnall Golden Gregory, Atlanta; Mary Rose Papandrea of Williams & Connelly, Washington, D.C.) AG

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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