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Federal judge lets company stay anonymous in suit over CPSC complaint data

Consumer Reports News: October 23, 2012 05:23 PM

A federal judge's ruling allows a company known only as "Company Doe" to permanently prevent consumers from getting any information about a lawsuit the company filed to stop the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from posting a report on its public database about a consumer injury allegedly related to Company Doe's product.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is appealing the court's decision to seal the case and the identity of "Company Doe," along with Public Citizen and Consumer Federation of America, two other advocacy groups.

"The public has a strong interest in the outcome of this lawsuit and a correspondingly strong right to learn who is involved and the factual basis for the court's decision to exempt a product report from the database," said Scott Michelman, the Public Citizen attorney representing the three consumer groups. "Adjudicating this first-ever challenge to the consumer product safety database in secret, based on secret evidence, and with a secret plaintiff, is at odds with the First Amendment and our tradition of open judicial proceedings.", the CPSC's public searchable online database was launched in March 2011 to allow consumers and others including fire fighters or medical personnel, to file publicly searchable reports about potentially dangerous products. "The CPSC database is a critical tool for informing consumers and consumer advocates about potential safety concerns related to a wide variety of product," says Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union.

The CPSC is required to post consumer complaints within 20 business days of receiving them, but must first notify manufacturers and give them a chance to respond. If information submitted is shown to be materially inaccurate the complaint is corrected or removed from the database.

"Company Doe" filed suit in October 2011 against the CPSC to block publication of a report that had been submitted to the database by a local government agency and that implicated the company's product as causing harm. "Company Doe" contended that the report was "baseless" and would cause "irreparable harm to its reputation and financial well-being," according to the opinion announced Monday but released today by Judge Alexander Williams Jr. in federal district court in Greenbelt, Md.

The court document indicates that the case was decided in the company's favor more than two months ago after nine months of proceedings that were conducted out of public view and without opportunity for public participation. Other crucial portions of the court document released today are blacked out so that no information is revealed about the company's name, the type of product involved, the nature of the harm alleged or the relevant facts underlying the court's decision in an aggressive legal challenge to an important public database.

The appeal filed by Consumers Union and the two other consumer groups seeking to unseal the records in this case will be heard by the United States Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit.

—Andrea Rock


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