National Consumers League

An end to secret settlements could save lives

en, corporations are able to settle lawsuits brought against them in secret, paying off litigants and hushing up the hazards that lurk in their products. Consumers deserve more transparency and accountability from these corporations. USA Today editorialized last week on this very problem, focusing on a product I’d never heard discussed in this debate, ironically a rifle. 


In 2000, a nine-year-old Montana boy, Gus Barber, on a family hunting trip, was killed when his mother released the safety on a Remington 700 rifle to unload it and the gun discharged. Gus’ father later discovered that the company knew they had a safety problem for decades and never changed the design, admitted the problem, or recalled the rifles. By the time Gus was shot, more than 100 people had been injured and two-dozen killed. All these cases were buried through secret settlements, with judges sealing these confidential settlements, thus depriving the public from knowing about this deadly hazard.

The practice of sealing health and safety hazards, many of them deadly is unconscionable and dangerous. NCL and our fellow safety advocates have supported legislation introduced over the years in Congress to stop this practice, requiring judges to reject requests from plaintiff and defense lawyers to enter into secret settlements where dangerous products remain in the marketplace.

Gus Barber’s case is so outrageous that Montana joined four other states in adopting an anti-secrecy statute that prohibits their state courts from concealing information about public hazards.

Things may finally be turning around on this issue. In a recent case in Missouri, federal judge Ortrie Smith refused to seal a case against Remington for safety issues. That’s a hopeful sign. If we could get a federal bill passed, every judge would be required to follow Judge Smith’s example and refuse to deprive citizens of critical safety information that could have saved nine-year-old Gus Barber’s life.