Reuters opened an investigation into the devastating side effects of Propecia, the men’s hair loss prevention drug manufactured by Merck. Reuters explored the link between men taking Propecia, sexual dysfunction, and suicide. During its research of one case, in particular, Reuters stumbled on a problem that undermines the integrity of the way product liability cases are tried in courts across the country. Reuters learned — only by happenstance, courtesy of a mistake committed by a group of attorneys — that pharmaceutical companies like Merck consistently persuade judges to impound or seal pleadings in court which, if readily accessible to the interested public, could harm the company’s reputation.
Reuters described sealing or impounding documents as essentially court-sanctioned secrecy. The newsgroup found that many judges will allow companies defending themselves in product liability cases to hide documents and information which, if publicly known, would call attention to thousands of dangerous products. Reuters says the legal procedure of sealing or impounding court filings spans every industry involved in products liability litigation including auto manufacturing, furniture manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, technology firms, firearms manufacturers, and medical device manufacturers. Plaintiffs’ attorneys benefit from the impound procedure as well because they could use the threat of going to trial, which must be held in public and would expose the information the companies want to hold secret, to strongarm a settlement out of the company.
Sealing and impounding court filings runs contrary to our system of justice. One of the core beliefs of the U.S. justice system is transparency. Transparency of the courts is necessary for the fair administration of justice. Every person has the right to walk into a courthouse and demand to see the documents filed and watch courtroom proceedings. Conducting business in the public eye ensures accountability of the judges and their rulings, as well as serving to keep the public informed about what is transpiring in the world around them.
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