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The public’s safety and its right to review court records require the release of documents sealed in a court settlement involving a traffic fatality caused by faulty Bridgestone/Firestone tires, media attorneys claim. Attorneys for The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, CBS Broadcasting and Los Angeles Times Communications are petitioning the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm a U.S. District Court’s order unsealing the records, which were part of a 1998 settlement in Brunswick. Van Etten v. Bridgestone/Firestone, No. 2:98-cv-069 (S.D. Ga., Sept. 27, 2000). Bridgestone/Firestone lawyers are protesting U.S. District Judge Anthony A. Alaimo’s order and have asked the Atlanta appeals court to leave the records permanently sealed. Van Etten; Chicago Tribune et al. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, No. 00-14519 (11th Cir., Sept. 29, 2000). “When a case involves matters of particularly strong public interest — as does the underlying case here — the rationale for public access is even greater,” wrote media attorneys Robert L. Rothman of Arnall Golden & Gregory and Kevin T. Baine of Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., in an appeals brief. “The courts have noted that there is a particularly strong public interest in court records filed in cases concerning health and public safety issues.” The court records in question surfaced during the litigation that followed the 1997 crash of a Ford Explorer on I-95 in southeast Georgia. The crash killed Daniel Paul Van Etten, a 19-year-old freshman who played football for the University of West Virginia. The accident occurred when the tread of the Explorer’s left rear tire — a Bridgestone/Firestone radial ATX — peeled away. Earlier this year, Bridgestone/Firestone issued a recall of 6.5 million tires, including the ATX. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported more than 100 deaths linked to the recalled tires. The media lawyers claim that court documents in the Van Etten case were sealed “only because under an ‘umbrella’ protective order, Firestone was permitted to label any documents it produced during discovery as ‘confidential.’ “ The purpose of that order was not “to ensure perpetual secrecy of documents Firestone unilaterally elected to designate as confidential,” the brief states. Instead, the protective order was issued by a federal magistrate to streamline the discovery process. During the litigation, no judge ever reviewed the documents to determine whether “good cause” existed to protect Firestone’s documents under a blanket seal, media attorneys claim. “The magistrate judge essentially delegated to the litigants the ability to deprive the public of access to court files without the slightest showing of need, let alone the compelling interest required under those cases.” In a brief filed last month, Firestone attorneys argued that tire company documents included trade secrets. Among those still-sealed documents are company-wide standards for manufacturing tires for passenger cars and light trucks, design specifications for the Firestone ATX, customer satisfaction rates based on returned tires, and a deposition from Firestone’s quality assurance supervisor. Together, the documents provide “a detailed road map of the tire’s design features,” Firestone’s brief states. “There is no public right to access trade secret discovery documents,” according to the Firestone brief. Firestone lawyers also insisted that the public has access only to discovery admitted as evidence in open court. That access, they insist, does not include all evidence filed during the course of the litigation. But media lawyers argue, “Firestone failed to show that the sealed court records contain trade secrets or any other confidential proprietary information and that its need to keep this information confidential outweighed the public’s right of access to the documents filed with the district court.” Alaimo reviewed the sealed portions of the court record in chambers before he issued his order to unseal. Because Firestone never explained how its competitors would benefit from documents containing specifications of tires that have now been recalled, “the district court properly held that it was ‘left to simply trust [Firestone] that the contents of the sealed documents are trade secrets,’ ” the media brief states. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the 11th Circuit have in previous cases affirmed the public’s right of access to court documents, both civil and criminal, according to the brief. And the 11th Circuit has determined that the public has a right to review the entire court record of a case. “A court may deny access only if it makes specific findings that the right of access is outweighed by a compelling interest in secrecy,” the media brief states. “This court has proclaimed that ‘once a matter is brought before a court for resolution, it is no longer solely the parties’ case, but also the public’s case. Absent a show of extraordinary circumstances … the court file must remain accessible to the public.’” In two previous cases — one against the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and the other against American Motors — the 11th Circuit suggested that simply filing a document “is, in fact, sufficient for the right of access to attach.” Said the court, “By submitting pleadings and motions to the court for decision, one enters the public arena of courtroom proceedings and exposes oneself, as well as the opposing party, to the risk, though by no means the certainty, of public scrutiny.”

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