WASHINGTON - We soon could know the identity of the manufacturer - known only as "Company Doe" - in a product-safety case that has been linked to a child's death.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., sided with consumer groups this week in their fight to reveal the identity of the manufacturer. The court reversed part of a lower-court ruling and sent the case back to the district court in Maryland with instructions to "unseal the case in its entirety."
"We hold that the district court's sealing order violates the public's right of access under the First Amendment," Judge Henry F. Floyd wrote.
In 2011, an unidentified manufacturer went to court to stop the Consumer Product Safety Commission from publishing online a complaint about a product the company makes. It was the first legal challenge to the commission's federal database for safety complaints about products ranging from strollers and toys to household appliances.
The manufacturer argued that the complaint about the company was inaccurate and contained confusing statements, and therefore should not be posted in the SaferProducts.gov database. The company asked the court to keep proceedings under seal, allowing the manufacturer to use the pseudonym "Company Doe." Revealing the name of the company to the public would be the same as publishing the complaint in the database, the company argued.
The district court ruled in favor of Company Doe, saying the complaint failed to describe any harm related to the use of the manufacturer's product.
Three consumer groups - Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers Union - appealed, challenging the seal on the court case.
"Today's decision is a big victory both for the public's right of access to court proceedings and for consumers who will benefit from the operation of the consumer product safety database," said Scott Michelman, the lawyer handling the case for Public Citizen.
Little is known publicly about the safety complaint against Company Doe. It was not filed by the child or the child's family, but by an unidentified government agency.
An attorney for Company Doe, Baruch Fellner at the law firm Gibson Dunn, said that if the name of the company is revealed, "both the media and the public will readily understand that these false and misleading reports harm a company that has a perfect record of product safety."
Fellner said attorneys are reviewing the court's decision "to determine further action."
Company Doe could appeal to the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court.
The manufacturing community has complained that reports of harm posted in the Consumer Product Safety Commission's database with missing or inaccurate information could do irreparable harm to a company's reputation. When a complaint is sent to the commission for the database, the manufacturer is informed of the complaint and can respond before the report is made public.