What people don’t know can hurt them — as proven repeatedly by a system of secret justice that has grown up inside the courts.
General Motors Co.’s handling of its Chevy Cobalts with faulty ignition switches is the latest example. GM has settled several claims by victims or their loved ones — on the condition that the terms remain secret.
Public settlements might have warned everyone of the danger or even forced the company to replace the switches sooner. None of that happened. The cars weren’t recalled until February, nine years after one of the earliest settlements.
Keeping the terms of settlements secret (or sealing documents) has become routine, and not just among automakers. Corporations have used the strategy to hide the side effects of dangerous drugs, tires that shred on the road and small planes with defective parts. The Catholic Church kept settlements secret to protect abusive priests.
GM is a repeat offender.
Decades ago, safety advocates charged that GM pickups with gas tanks mounted outside the vehicle’s frame rails were prone to rupture and ignite in side-impact collisions. The federal government sought a recall, but GM asserted that the trucks were safe and fought off a recall of 1973-1987 models.
Years later, it was learned that GM had secretly paid close to $500 million to settle 297 claims over the trucks. GM had kept those individual settlements secret and argued that even disclosure of the totals would harm its reputation and goodwill. A federal judge, unimpressed by the argument, ordered disclosure in 2003. It was a small victory for transparency but too late for people devastated by crashes.
Earlier knowledge might have warned off buyers such as Elaine and Tom Moseley, loyal GM customers in Georgia who bought a used GMC pickup for their son Shannon in 1988, when he turned 16. A year after the purchase, Shannon died in a fiery crash when his truck was broadsided.
A GM spokesman says settlements leave plaintiffs free to share considerable information with regulators, and the automaker is among many companies that settle cases with confidentiality. True, which is one reason a new law is needed.
A bipartisan group in Congress, led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has championed a measure to make secrecy harder to obtain in federal courts when public safety is at stake.
If history is any guide, it’s going to be a tough battle. In 2009, a powerful coalition — manufacturers, drug companies, insurers, corporate defense attorneys and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — derailed a similar proposal.
Shamefully, some federal judges are opponents, too. They already have authority to insist on disclosure but seldom use it.
Secrecy thrives because it benefits the parties involved, none more than businesses that want to avoid embarrassment and lawsuits. Plaintiffs and their lawyers often go along in exchange for bigger, speedier payouts. Judges want to clear their crowded calendars.
Lost in all this is the public interest. When victims of harmful products or abusive practices sue or threaten to sue, the selfish wishes of a few should not override the safety of so many others.
— LIVINGSTON DAILY PRESS AND ARGUS