The Safety Institute and The Center for Auto Safety declared victory in their fight to unseal court records in a highway guardrail case. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals again rejected an appeal by Trinity Industries Inc., the globally dominant producer and seller of guardrail systems, to keep secret documents filed in a federal whistleblower lawsuit that concluded in October with a $525 million judgment against the manufacturer.
Trinity has been blocking public access to court records in the 2012 lawsuit brought by Joshua Harman, president of a competitor company, SPIG Industries, of Bristol, Va. Harman maintained that sometime between 2002 and 2005, Trinity modified the design of its original guardrail end terminal causing it to fail in crashes and injure and kill occupants in striking vehicles. By regulation, manufacturers of roadside equipment are required to inform the Federal Highway Administration of significant modifications to approved devices. Trinity admitted to the FHWA in 2012 that it had not disclosed the change for seven years. Harman sued Trinity under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, in which a private individual can sue federal contractors on behalf of the government, alleging fraud. After the trial concluded, the documents were filed under seal with the consent of both parties while Trinity pursued an appeal.
The Safety Institute (TSI) and The Center for Auto Safety (CAS), represented by Public Justice, first filed a motion seeking access to these records in August 2014. In September, U.S. District Judge Rodney A. Gilstrap denied their motion, but indicated that he would consider unsealing the records after the October trial.
In March, Judge Gilstrap ruled that the public could have immediate access to both trials’ exhibits and testimony, but he withheld other records associated with the case for 10 days, pending a potential appeal by Trinity and/or Texas Transportation Institute, the original designer of the ET-Plus which licensed the product to the manufacturer. Trinity appealed, petitioning the Court of Appeals to stay the Gilstrap’s order unsealing the records. The Fifth Circuit temporarily ruled in Trinity’s favor. Last month, however, the Fifth Circuit lifted the stay in a 2-1 decision, with the majority reasoning that Trinity was unlikely to prevail on the merits of its appeal and cited the district court’s careful adherence to the high standard for sealing records. Trinity filed a motion for reconsideration but the appeals court rejected it for a second time, and Trinity abandoned its effort to keep the documents secret. Bottom line: Judge Gilstrap’s original ruling stands.
Anytime court records regarding public health and safety are accessible, consumers win.