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Court Should Unseal Filings in Case Against Giants Beer Vendor, Drunk Driver

Oct. 11, 2007

Court Should Unseal Filings in Case Against Giants Beer Vendor, Drunk Driver

Decision to Seal Documents Is Unwarranted, Unjustified and Unnecessary, Strikes at the Heart of Public’s Right to Know, Public Citizen Tells Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A New Jersey court’s decision to seal documents in a well-publicized personal injury case involving a paralyzed girl and a drunk driver violates state law, Public Citizen today told the New Jersey Superior Court of Bergen County. 

When a drunken fan left a Giants football game in 1999 and slammed into a car, he paralyzed a little girl in the other vehicle and set into motion a headline-grabbing court case that at one point had the girl’s family winning New Jersey’s largest personal injury lawsuit in a decade against the driver and the stadium’s beer vendor. News last year that a New Jersey court had overturned the $105 million verdict stoked interest and outrage again.

With stadium owners, vending companies, anti-drunk driving activists, sports reporters and legal analysts watching, the case was ordered back to trial.

But it never got there. Why it didn’t is a question not easily answered because the New Jersey Superior Court in June ordered all future proceedings in the case sealed. Public Citizen, in its motion to unseal, is asking the court that all filings sealed since June be opened and that its order to seal all future filings be vacated. Although the Web site of one of the attorneys says that the case settled, there is no indication in the public court file that the court approved a settlement.

“A basic feature of our system of justice is that court decisions are made in public,” said Greg Beck, the Public Citizen attorney who filed the motion. “The public has a right to monitor the courts and what they’re doing, just as it has a right to monitor other branches of government.”

Even if the case had been barely a blip on the media radar, it’s still a matter of public record, Public Citizen told the court. Under established case law, the public has a presumptive right of access to judicial records that can be overcome only by a strong showing of an important countervailing interest. The burden is on the parties who want the records sealed to show the need for secrecy.

But in this case, there’s no way of knowing if that burden was met, because there is no indication in the public record of the reasons supporting the court’s decision to hide the records from public view. Public Citizen is arguing that at a minimum, the court must release any orders that justify its decision to seal the balance of the proceedings. Furthermore, the court should justify the sealing of each record, rather than providing a blanket seal, Public Citizen said.

The case started a national debate about the culture of intoxication at ballparks and the responsibility of venues and vendors for the actions of their customers. The initial verdict, the victim’s attorney said, “sends an appropriate message … that will make a difference at arenas.”  The appeals court’s decision to overturn the settlement also sent a message about liability, or lack thereof.

By filing this motion to unseal, Public Citizen seeks to restore basic rights of access and ensure that the critical conversation about drunk driving, liability and justice isn’t squelched. 

Alan Y. Medvin of Medvin & Elberg in Newark is the local counsel on the case.  

READ the filing.