(Adds details from decision, comments from judge and business
By Jonathan Stempel
April 16 In a victory for consumers, a federal
appeals court on Wednesday directed that litigation about a
product linked to the death of an infant be made public, saying
the manufacturer could not keep the details secret to protect
Overturning a lower court's findings, the 4th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals said allowing the manufacturer known in court
papers as Company Doe to maintain confidentiality "effectively
shut out" the public and the press from their constitutional
right to obtain access to civil proceedings.
"A corporation very well may desire that the allegations
lodged against it in the court of litigation be kept from public
view to protect its corporate image, but the First Amendment
right of access does not yield to such an interest," Circuit
Judge Henry Floyd wrote for the appeals court.
Three consumer advocacy groups - the Consumer Federation of
America, Consumers Union and Public Citizen - had sought to make
the records public and reveal Company Doe's identity.
Company Doe had sued to block publication of what it called
a "materially inaccurate" report linking its product to an
infant's death in SaferProducts.gov, a U.S. Consumer Product
Safety Commission database that alerts people to potentially
The 4th Circuit sent the consumer groups' case back to U.S.
District Judge Alexander Williams in Greenbelt, Maryland and
ordered that court records be unsealed.
It did not provide a timetable, and it is unclear whether
there will be an appeal.
Baruch Fellner, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
representing Company Doe, did not immediately respond to a
request for comment.
"It's the right result," said Scott Michelman, a lawyer for
Public Citizen, in an interview. "It's a big victory both for
open access to judicial records and for consumers, in terms of
the viability of the CPSC database."
The case was the first legal challenge to SaferProducts.gov,
which the CPSC launched in March 2011 as required by Congress
under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
More than 18,000 incident reports are now online, CPSC
spokesman Scott Wolfson said. The CPSC was not a party in the
case before the 4th Circuit, which sits in Richmond, Virginia.
In letting Company Doe pursue its challenge to the database
pseudonymously, Williams had concluded that the company's
interest in "preserving its reputational and fiscal health"
outweighed the public's First Amendment rights.
The 4th Circuit said it was unclear what evidence Williams
relied on to reach his conclusions.
"The burden rested with Company Doe to articulate a
compelling interest that outweighs the strong presumption of
public access," Floyd wrote. "Company Doe has failed."
The 4th Circuit also rejected Company Doe's arguments that
the consumer groups lacked legal standing to get involved.
Several media companies including Gannett Co, New
York Times Co, Tribune Co and the Washington
Post, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and the
AARP, filed court papers supporting the consumer groups' appeal.
Six business groups including the National Association of
Manufacturers filed papers supporting Company Doe.
Wednesday's decision "could result in needlessly alarming
people about things that are not true, and harming the
reputations of businesses," said Cary Silverman, a partner at
Shook, Hardy & Bacon representing these groups, in an interview.
"From a policy perspective, it is in the interests of
businesses and consumers to make sure that information being
released about the safety of products is accurate," he added.
The appeal is Public Citizen et al v. Company Doe, 4th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-2209.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional
reporting by Alison Frankel; editing by Andrew Hay)