PoliticalNews.me - May 15,2014 - Sen. Whitehouse Bill Protects Public Health by Ending Secrecy in Certain Civil Settlements
Safety over Secrecy Act Introduced
Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced legislation to protect the health and safety of American citizens by limiting the ability of big corporations to demand that plaintiffs remain silent about their experiences as a condition of settling their disputes. Currently, for example, natural gas companies facing lawsuits from citizens who claim their water has been contaminated by the extraction process can require citizens to keep details of their cases secret in exchange for a cash settlement.
Whitehouse’s bill, the Safety over Secrecy Act (S. 2317), could help to limit the use of confidentiality agreements in cases involving hazards to public health and safety.
“While confidentiality agreements can be useful tools to protect sensitive information and trade secrets, too often they are used to hide important safety concerns from regulators, policymakers, the news media, public health experts, and the general public,” Whitehouse said in a prepared statement submitted to the Congressional Record. “Under current law, judges are not specifically required to consider the public interest when determining the enforceability of confidentiality agreements. In cases involving hazards to public health and safety—and only in those cases—this bill would change that, and would require judges to balance a party’s specific interest in confidentiality against the public interest in disclosure of information when approving or enforcing confidentiality agreements.”
The full text of Whitehouse’s Congressional Record statement is below.
Mr./Madam President, today I am pleased to introduce the Safety over Secrecy Act, which prohibits courts from enforcing confidentiality agreements in the settlement of civil suits involving hazards to public health and safety. This bill will ensure that plaintiffs in such suits do not have to remain silent about their experiences as a condition of settling their disputes.
While confidentiality agreements can be useful tools to protect sensitive information and trade secrets, too often they are used to hide important safety concerns from regulators, policymakers, the news media, public health experts, and the general public. Over the past 20 years, we have learned of numerous cases where court-approved secrecy has shielded serious public health and safety dangers from the public—putting hundreds, if not thousands, of lives at risk. These cases have involved hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” asbestos, defective auto components, and “adverse incidents” from drugs.
Typically in these cases, victims face large corporations that can spend unlimited amounts of money defending lawsuits and prolonging their resolution. Faced with mounting litigation expenses and medical bills, plaintiffs often seek to settle their suits. In exchange for damages, they are forced to agree to provisions that prohibit them from discussing their cases or revealing information disclosed during litigation. Defendants are thus able to keep damaging information from getting out. As a result, the public—as well as regulatory agencies—remain unaware of the risks.
Let’s take fracking, where drillers from Pennsylvania to Arkansas and Wyoming to Texas have entered into cash settlements or property buyouts with individuals who