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Lawyers Assail Rise in Court Secrecy

Trial lawyers want judges to be more selective in choosing case files to seal from public view. CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENTS

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CONFIDENTIALITY orders blocking public access to details of product-liability, environmental, and medical malpractice cases - even after the case has ended - are harming the public and undermining the legal system. That is the conclusion reached by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), which at its recent annual meeting here, passed a resolution requesting judges not to grant secrecy orders - except in rare instances. The resolution also requested lawyers to refuse to sign them, thereby keeping court files open to other lawyers, the public, and the press.

``The truth about lethal fuel systems, exploding lighters, faulty medical devices and procedures, contaminated food, vehicle flipovers, and other life-threatening situations is lost to the public'' when case files are sealed after the case ends, says Bill Wagner, president of ATLA, a plaintiff-lawyers' group.

Such orders are frequently solicited by corporate defense attorneys as a prerequisite for a monetary settlement in a product-liability case. The intent, say plaintiffs' attorneys, is usually to protect corporations from more lawsuits involving the same product, and to squelch bad publicity.

``The result is a legal system that keeps the truth under lock and key,'' and can result in further harm to individuals unaware that a product is dangerous, Mr. Wagner says.

The rise in confidentiality orders began about 15 years ago when the numbers of product-liability lawsuits started growing. There were a number of lawsuits involving the Ford Pinto's exploding fuel tank, the location of the fuel tank on some General Motors cars, Bic cigarette lighters, asbestos, and the Dalkon shield and other contraceptives. Add to those well-known cases the rise in malpractice suits against hospitals and doctors, as well as suits alleging health problems due to contaminated water supplies.

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