NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON · Secret Courts · July 7, 2005
Public can see civil case documents filed with trial court
July 7, 2005 · Trial courts need a compelling reason to seal nearly any document filed in civil cases in the state of Washington, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.
The holding relied on the open courts provision of the Washington constitution, which states, “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay.”
The June 30 decision stemmed from a medical malpractice case against Abbott Laboratories and others over a faulty blood test. In 2001, a jury awarded $16 million to David and Jennifer Rufer, who underwent an unnecessary hysterectomy, chemotherapy and partial lung removal after a test manufactured by Abbott falsely indicated she had cancer.
After the trial, Judge William L. Downing denied Abbott’s motion to seal parts of depositions that were made public during the trial, as well as certain deposition exhibits and one trial exhibit, which Abbott said contained “highly sensitive, trade secret and proprietary information.”
Downing, who found that Abbott showed no overriding interest in maintaining their secrecy, ordered that all exhibits and documents filed with the court be open to inspection.
“The fact that a party might consider information as ‘confidential’ or even ‘proprietary’ and prefer that documents not become public is too obviously insufficient to merit discussion,” Downing wrote, according to the state Supreme Court decision.
The state Court of Appeals reversed Downing, holding that Abbott only had to show “good cause” rather than a compelling interest to seal documents attached to motions unrelated to the outcome of the case, such as motions to exclude evidence. The intermediate appellate court sent the case back to the trial court to determine if Abbott had met the lesser standard. Rufer appealed to the Supreme Court, which held that the trial court had correctly applied the strict “compelling interest” standard to almost all of the documents at issue, with the exception of depositions that were never used in court.
“The Washington Supreme Court has always been a champion of the public’s right to access court proceedings and documents,” Downing told The Seattle Times. “They’ve proven that once again.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Mary Fairhurst rejected as “overly cynical” Abbott’s argument that parties could abuse the strong presumption of openness by attaching to their motions confidential but irrelevant documents produced by other parties simply to embarrass or harass those other parties. Trial courts can curb the potential for such abuse by imposing sanctions and sealing the confidential documents, the court noted.
Justice Barbara Madsen dissented in part, writing that the compelling interest standard should not apply to documents filed with pretrial discovery-related motions or irrelevant attachments.
(Rufer v. Abbott Laboratories) — KK