Mesothelioma Lawyers’ Funding Helps Win Victory Over Corporate Secrecy
At Kazan Law, we are not just mesothelioma lawyers. We are passionate about everyone’s right to know about potential hazards in our environment and in the products that shape our lives. As part of our commitment to corporate accountability, we joined with another law firm to fund a position at Public Justice, a public interest legal group whose mission includes the pursuit of “high impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice.”
That funding recently reaped big dividends for all lawyers who fight against corporate wrongdoing. Jennifer Bennett, the Kazan Budd attorney at Public Justice, won a landmark ruling in the Ninth Circuit that will prevent corporations from keeping evidence of their negligence under wraps.
Challenging a Judicial Standard
Bennett was an outstanding member of the class of 2010 at Yale Law School. With Kazan Law’s help, Public Justice was able to offer this promising young legal mind a place among the ranks of lawyers dedicated to defending plaintiffs’ rights. One of her first projects was to work on a class action suit against Chrysler for an ignition defect that had led to countless collisions and caused more than one hundred fatalities.
The case, Velasco v. Chrysler, involved a defect in the ignition switches in Chrysler automobiles. The defect causes the engine to suddenly cut out while the car is going full speed on the highway. The automaker had never informed the public about the ignition problem. It asked the judge for an order that the records in the Velasco case be filed under seal. This meant that the public – including other attorneys, journalists, and consumers – weren’t able to find out the important information uncovered by this case.
The plaintiffs asked the court to unseal the records and warn other drivers of Chrysler vehicles about this dangerous defect. The US District court refused, despite clear public safety implications. The judge took the position that court records such as these can only be unsealed after a jury verdict.
Mesothelioma Lawyers: Breaking a Cycle of Corporate Wrongdoing
The problem is that most cases never go to a jury. Bennett describes the deadly cycle of corporate malfeasance and the justice system’s complicity in a recent blog post: “Corporation conceals deadly defect. Someone dies, and their family sues. Corporation settles quietly. Court records are sealed. Nobody finds out. More people are hurt; more people sue; more settlements are reached; more records are sealed.” It sometimes takes years or even decades for the truth to come out.
The Velasco case seemed destined to follow this pattern. Chrysler settled before a verdict. The court records, along with the alarming facts about the malfunctioning ignitions, remained sealed away from public scrutiny.
Enter Public Justice, which intervened in the case on behalf of the Center for Auto Safety. Represented by Jennifer Bennett, the Center for Auto Safety appealed to unseal the records, taking the case up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Holding Corporations Accountable
In a major victory for transparency, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the records cannot be kept secret. In doing so, the court created a much broader standard for unsealing court documents. When information is “more than tangentially related to the merits of a case,” the court said, the public deserves access.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this legal decision. If not for this ruling, thousands of Chrysler drivers would not have known that they might have faulty ignition switches. The car company would not have to face public accountability for this major product defect. Even more importantly, judges will use the new standard in future cases.
Bennett highlighted the significance of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in her blog post:
“This is a big deal. It makes the settle-and-conceal model of handling corporate misconduct much more difficult to pull off: Corporations can no longer hope to prevent public access to court records simply by settling a case before a court gets a chance to make a final determination.”
Lawsuits are one way to bring to light willful corporate negligence. Through the discovery process, plaintiffs’ lawyers gain access to internal communications that can reveal that a corporation knew about a harmful product for years and lied about that knowledge. The ruling won by Bennett and Public Justice may stop corporations from hiding their crimes behind a wall of legal secrecy.
Mesothelioma Lawyers’ Funding Helped It Happen
As mesothelioma lawyers, we are very familiar with the harm that comes when corporations hide information about health and safety from the public. Manufacturers used asbestos with no worker safeguards for decades after they knew about its health risks. Those decades led to countless avoidable deaths.
The truth about asbestos and mesothelioma are public now. But many more dangers are still hidden by bad corporate citizens. The Velasco decision will help plaintiffs’ lawyers bring more of those hazards to light. Jennifer Bennett, the Kazan Budd attorney at Public Justice, won a court decision that will save lives in the years to come by holding corporations accountable for the harm they cause. It’s a terrific start to a promising legal career. Kazan Law is proud to have played a role in supporting this talented young lawyer who has already accomplished so much.