A federal appeals court ruled last week that a manufacturer whose product was linked to the death of an infant can be named publicly and ordered the firm to make details of the case public. The decision from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals serves as a reminder to companies, including ad specialty suppliers and distributors, that failure to ensure that product safety standards are met in all instances can result in serious legal, civil and public relations repercussions.
In the ruling, Circuit Judge Henry Floyd wrote that a lower court ruling that allowed the manufacturer – identified only as “Company Doe” – to remain anonymous unconstitutionally prevented the public and press from their right to gain 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," Floyd wrote.
Calling allegations against it “materially inaccurate,” Company Doe had sued to prevent a report linking its product to an infant’s death from appearing on www.SaferProducts.gov, a federal database instituted under the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) that alerts people to potentially unsafe products. Crying foul, three consumer advocacy groups – the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Public Citizen – sought to make the records public and reveal Company Doe's identity.
Last week’s 4th Circuit ruling unseals the court records, clearing the way for the report to be posted and for the public and press to learn the identity of the manufacturer. "It's the right result," said Scott Michelman, a lawyer for Public Citizen. "It's a big victory both for open access to judicial records and for consumers, in terms of the viability of the CPSC database."
Still, when the unveiling will occur wasn’t immediately clear, as it’s not yet known if Company Doe will appeal the ruling, a process that could take months or even years.