“Company Doe” unmasks itself

Today, in anticipation of the district court's unsealing of the court file in the Company Doe case, the baby-carrier maker Ergobaby revealed that it is "Company Doe," the company that fought for two-and-a-half years for the right to litigate in secret its challenge to the publication of a report in the Consumer Product Safety Commission's product safety database. Even after the district court decision vindicated Ergobaby's position on the merits, finding that Ergobaby's product had not caused the harm that was reported, Ergobaby continued to insist that the court records containing the facts and evidence in the case, and even the company's name, remain secret.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected Ergobaby's position last month, ruling in Company Doe v. Public Citizen that under the First Amendment, potential harm to corporate reputation does not justify secret litigation. The court wrote:

A corporation very well may desire that the allegations lodged against it in the course 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. The interests that courts have found sufficiently compelling to justify closure under the First Amendment include a defendant’s right to a fair trial before an impartial jury, protecting the privacy rights of trial participants such as victims or witnesses, and risks to national security. Adjudicating claims that carry the potential for embarrassing or injurious revelations about a corporation’s image, by contrast, are part of the day-to-day operations of federal courts. But whether in the context of products liability claims, securities litigation, employment matters, or consumer fraud cases, the public and press enjoy a presumptive right of access to civil proceedings and documents filed therein, notwithstanding the negative publicity those documents may shower upon a company. (citations omitted)

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