Law School Case Brief
Chi. Tribune Co. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. - 263 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2001)
Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c)(7) permits a court upon motion of a party to make a protective order requiring that a trade secret or other confidential research, development, or commercial information not be revealed or be revealed only in a designated way. The prerequisite is a showing of "good cause" made by the party seeking protection. Federal courts superimpose a balancing of interests approach for Rule 26's good cause requirement. This standard requires the district court to balance the party's interest in obtaining access against the other party's interest in keeping the information confidential.
Daniel Van Etten, an eighteen-year old football player from West Virginia University, died as a result of injuries sustained in a roll-over automobile accident. In April of 1998, his parents filed suit in the Southern District of Georgia, claiming that Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc.'s negligent design and manufacture of the tires on Daniel's Ford Explorer were the proximate cause of his death. At the beginning of the litigation, the parties stipulated to a protective order allowing each other to designate particular documents as confidential and subject to protection under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c)(7). This method replaced the need to litigate the claim to protection document by document, and postponed the necessary showing of "good cause" required for entry of a protective order until the confidential designation is challenged. As the district court noted, this allowed Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. to temporarily enjoy the protection of Rule 26(c), making Firestone's documents presumptively confidential until challenged. After the suit was settled, intervenor media agencies obtained an order unsealing some of those documents. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. agreed to unseal some of the material but objected to disclosure of nine documents and ten pages excerpted from legal briefs. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. claimed that those items contained trade secrets. The district court held that Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. failed to show that a compelling interest necessitated the closure of the records and that the closure was narrowly tailored to that compelling interest. On appeal, Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. argued that the district court applied the wrong legal standard.
After the underlying products liability civil suit was settled, and intervenor media agencies sought to unseal documents from the manufacturer, did the federal district court err in ordering Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. to unseal the challenged documents?
The United States Court of Appeals agreed with Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc.’s argument that the district court applied the wrong legal standard. The constitutional right of access to court proceedings was more limited in the civil context than in the criminal context. Materials merely gathered during the discovery process did not fall within the scope of the constitutional right of access's compelling interest standard. Further, there was no common-law right of access to discovery material. For those documents filed with the court in connection with substantive pre-trial motions, the manufacturer had to show "good cause" for continued protection of the documents. The Rule 26 "good cause" standard balances the asserted right of access against the other party's interest in keeping the information confidential. The Court vacated the district court's order unsealing the challenged documents and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to determine whether Rule 26 "good cause" exists for maintaining the documents under seal.
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