Working with the National Consumers League
, the nation's oldest consumer advocacy organization, in Washington, D.C., I learned that consumer advocacy groups are working to pass the Sunshine in Litigation Act (H.R. 5419), a bill that will require critical health, environment and safety hazards to be opened up to the public instead of hidden in secret settlements between the parties. The bill will enhance measures already taken by 41 states and 94 federal districts, but will also require consistency in reform of federal courts.
In the past few years, several forms of the Sunshine in Litigation Act reached Congress. None passed, but a variety of testimonies identified the need for such a bill, restricting court-ordered secrecy of case histories and settlements on areas of public health concerns. In a testimony before Congress
in July 2008, Federal Court Judge Joseph F. Anderson of South Carolina, with 22 years on the bench, discussed the all-too-common trend toward court-ordered secrecy in settlement cases. Anderson noted that lawyers often request court-ordered secrecy in settlements, but when it comes to public health concerns, the public deserves access to information. It can protect consumers and help them make more informed decisions.
In his testimony, Anderson gave several examples of court-ordered secrecy in decisions involving information critical to public health and one example includes a direct environmental hazard which is of concern to residents' livelihood. In this particular case before Anderson, 350 plaintiffs contended that the defendant knowingly dumped harmful levels of PCBs into a river upstate. The toxicity caused severe health problems among residents. Concluding with a settlement in which all parties were satisfied, the judges agreed to court-ordered secrecy, but Judge Anderson said that he had second thoughts on whether this was the right choice. Shouldn't people have the right to information depicting environmental concerns which affect public health, and which are associated with a large, local, public body of water where residents might swim, boat or fish?
Restricting court-ordered secrecy will not impinge on the court system and districts but will make information more readily available to consumers. Judge Anderson’s federal district in South Carolina adopted court-ordered secrecy reform, the only district in South Carolina to do so by the time Anderson testified in 2008. New companies continued to spring up and thrive despite the changes in settlement secrecy. In a testimony for the Sunshine in Litigation Act 2010
, Georgetown Law Professor Sherman L. Cohn mentioned that although reform may lead to decreased sums of money exchanged in settlements, a general "loyalty to society" and a responsibility to public welfare should transcend other considerations when matters affect public safety.
Information on environmental hazards and the safety of market products should be immediately disclosed to the public, especially when the hazardous area or product may be fatal. We can't afford to keep this information from the public. Let's protect each other's families and health by improving access to critical information on court cases relevant to public health and supporting the Sunshine in Litigation Act of 2010.