Court Records in Trinity Guardrail Whistleblower Case May Be Unsealed

By Leah Nicholls & Leslie Brueckner

Today we have both good news and bad news about our motion to unseal the court records in Harman v. Trinity, a federal whistleblower case involving defective highway guardrails.

First, the good news:

In response to our motion (which we filed on behalf of the Center for Auto Safety and The Safety Institute), the judge just ruled that Trinity Industries, Inc., a huge company that allegedly made secret modifications to a popular model of highway guardrails that transformed those guardrails into lethal spears, must show why records in the case should remain sealed from public view after the trial.

Over the course of the case, many documents were filed under seal. We suspect that at least some of those secret documents contain important information on the safety of Trinity’s guardrails. This information could be used by safety organizations to help make our nation’s roadways safer and to help prevent another GM debacle.

Today, the court recognized “the public’s right of access regarding trials and evidence in judicial proceedings” and stated that, once the trial in the case was complete, the court would unseal any documents the parties couldn’t show should stay sealed. 

Great, right? Not entirely. Which brings us to the bad news:

Although the court is going to make Trinity show cause as to why the records should not be unsealed, it denied our clients’ motion to intervene in the case—which means that we won’t be able to rebut Trinity’s claims as to why the record should remain secret.

So, although the court recognized the public’s right of access, it effectively held that the public has no ability to enforce that right. That’s a problem for all of us.

And it creates a big practical problem in this case because the reason the records were sealed in the first place is because both parties agreed to secrecy. That’s right—they agreed.

Early on in the case, the parties stipulated to a protective order allowing Trinity to designate materials produced in discovery as “confidential” without making any showing of good cause for secrecy. Then when it came time to file those records in court, the parties just went ahead and filed them under seal: bim bam boom.

Unfortunately, this happens all the time. But that doesn't make it right. The public’s right of access to court records can’t be waived at the stroke of a pen for the convenience of the litigants, but that’s exactly what happened here.

And because the plaintiffs agreed to secrecy the first time around, they might not be all that interested in fighting to defeat Trinity’s bid to keep them secret long-term.

That’s why our clients’ intervention matters. And that’s why the court’s decision denying intervention is wrong.

We plan to appeal—and if we win, we’ll be back before the trial court, making the case for the public’s right to know. 

This post was originally posted on Public Justice, online here