Ergobaby Named as Secret Company Doe in Litigation
Ergobaby Named as Secret “Company Doe” in Litigation
Ergobaby carried on a long fight to maintain its anonymity in an ongoing legal battle concerning a baby’s death in one of its carriers. Originally named as “Company Doe,” the true name of the company had long been kept sealed.
Ergobaby, a maker and seller of baby carriers, ultimately acknowledged that it is, in fact, “Company Doe,” in a lawsuit against the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in which Ergobaby fought to keep its name off of the government’s online database, and also from consumers, according to The Associated Press (AP). After a federal appeals court ordered a lower court to unseal the case, Ergobaby had no alternative but to release its name, the AP reported. Now, its long-sought lack of transparency in what should have been a public legal setting is putting its reputation at stake.
Ergobaby Allowed to Litigate in Secrecy
The 2011 complaint, which is also described as a “report of harm,” suggested that a CPSC report tied an Ergobaby carrier to the death of a baby. Ergobaby fought the allegations, which had been reaffirmed by a federal judge in Maryland when he had ruled in Ergobaby’s favor, the AP reported, and also allowed Ergobaby to litigate under the name “Company Doe.” The AP obtained a copy of the then-sealed July 2012 ruling, which indicated that U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams, Jr. ruled that the complaint involving the death of a seven-week-old baby describes "no sensible relation to the child's use of the carrier." The government then appealed but later dropped its charge.
Ergobaby fought to keep a consumer product safety report a secret to protect its name, according to The National Law Journal. Ergobaby did not use the long established setting of a lawsuit to bring its case and clear its name. Instead, it convinced a court to help keep its identity hidden by being listed as “Company Doe” in the lawsuit, including hiding material information about the firm—name, location, product, brand, individuals named—to ensure the matter remained hidden during litigation, according to The Consumerist.
Court Rules Against Sealing of Name in Litigation
Consumer groups appealed the litigation seal and, last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia agreed, returning the case back to the district court and instructing the court to "unseal the case in its entirety,” according to the AP. The Court ruled that “the public and press have a qualified right of access to judicial documents and records filed in civil and criminal proceedings” ordering the lower court to remove the secrecy in the case, wrote The Consumerist.
The United States district court judge in Maryland, which is where Ergobaby filed its lawsuit, will be making the case documents public, many of which the CPSC wanted to make public in an incident report on the government’s saferproducts.gov database concerning the infant’s death, The Law Journal wrote.
The SaferProducts.gov database was created in accordance with a Congressional mandate, The Consumerist wrote, and collects information regarding safety complaints from the public, among others. When received, complaints are reviewed before being filed with the database; the company that manufactures the product is given an opportunity to respond to the complaint.
Ergobaby argued that the release of its name on the database could be harmful to its reputation and was able to keep its name blocked from the CPSC’s posting the incident safety report. Meanwhile, consumer advocates pushed the Fourth Circuit to unseal court documents and release Ergobaby’s name, The Law Journal indicated.
An attorney for the consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, challenged the sealing of the records, noting that, when companies are allowed to litigate secretly, the CPSC database’s credibility is put in jeopardy. This case was the first to challenge the CPSC’s database, the AP pointed out.
Ergobaby’s Lack of Transparency Leads to More Controversy than Original Claims
Ergobaby says the court ruled in its favor concerning the death of the baby and determined that the carrier was not involved, according to The Consumerist. The firm also said it sought secret litigation to prevent “the publication of a misleading report on a governmental website that implied this tragedy was related to our product.” Ergobaby now indicates that its concern is that news articles involving the identity of “Company Doe” will make it seem that the product was involved in this death.
“The company, Ergobaby, spent years and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars to hide its identity and the substance of its litigation about a report to the CPSC,” says an attorney for Public Citizen who argued for the case to be un-redacted. “Ironically, although the judge in the case vindicated Ergobaby’s position with respect to its product, Ergobaby’s attempt to litigate in secret has probably attracted more attention to the case than if the company had not sought to sidestep the principle that judicial proceedings are generally conducted in the open, so the public can oversee the work of the courts.”
“This case could have set a very troubling precedent,” said Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. “If a company sues to keep its name out of the complaint database, it shouldn’t be able to use the courts to hide its identity from the public. The court has helped preserve the integrity of the database, and it recognized the importance of transparency in court proceedings, which we think is critical.”
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