How Secrecy Pacts Keep Regulators, Public in the Dark
The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
by Ben Kelley
April 13, 2016
For businesses that make and sell dangerous products, secrecy is a cherished ally. They work hard to prevent safety regulators and litigants from learning about their products’ hazards. One way they accomplish this is by concealing information revealed in lawsuits for those killed or injured by such products.
Automobiles are often targeted in lawsuits, so it is not surprising that car manufacturers are prominent among businesses adept at using judicial tools to keep documents from becoming public. Known as confidential settlement agreements or protective orders, these are court-sanctioned secrecy pacts agreed to by injured plaintiffs, often in exchange for settlement money. In crude terms, they are gag agreements which prohibit plaintiffs from telling regulators and the public what has been discovered in their lawsuits. The facts simply disappear from the public record.
The incentive for plaintiffs to settle can be great, especially when this means not only receiving compensation for their loss but also avoiding the costs and uncertainties of a jury trial. Accepting a secrecy provision may seem like a small price to pay, but the concealment of information from regulators and the public can mean that more people will die or be injured until the defect is finally exposed, which may take years or, worse, may never happen.