Media organizations should be granted access to documents that had been sealed in litigation against Bridgestone/Firestone, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media organizations argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed today with the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The underlying case was filed by the family of Daniel Van Etten, who was killed when his Ford Explorer rolled over, allegedly due to defective Firestone tires. During the course of litigation, documents were filed with the court under seal. Although the case settled in 1999, the litigation received renewed attention this year when the public learned that Firestone tires had been recalled and the company was the subject of dozens of suits involving allegations of defective tires.
Various media entities intervened in the case and asked the court to unseal records that were of public interest. The trial court ordered that the records be unsealed, finding that they were of great public importance. Firestone appealed that ruling. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether the trial court acted properly in unsealing the records.
“This case points out the need for judges to use extreme caution before sealing court documents that contain information important to public health and safety,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “The most important lesson in the Firestone tragedy is that we cannot let business interests turn our public courthouses into repositories for secret documents that could have saved lives had they been made public.”
The Reporters Committee argued that the records sought should be made available to the public to encourage faith in the judicial system. “Fidelity to the principle of openness is particularly important in cases such as this where public safety has been questioned and the public is watching the court system carefully to see that interests of justice are served both for the litigants and the public at large,” the brief stated.
The Committee also argued that Firestone could not prevent public from accessing the records merely because it was concerned about its business interests. The public also has an interest in the litigation: “Because the people are acutely aware of the controversy over these tires and the related injuries, they need to know whether the rights of the victims are being vindicated. Most day-to-day cases slip under the public’s radar screen. It is precisely the cases capturing the public’s attention for independent reasons that represent the judicial system to the public.”
The amicus curiae brief in Van Etten v. Bridgestone/Firestone was prepared by lawyers Peter Canfield, Thomas Clyde and Jason McCarter of Dow Lohnes & Albertson in Atlanta. The Reporters Committee was joined on the brief by the Associated Press, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Consumers Union, Gannett Satellite Information Network, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the Georgia Press Association and the New York Times.