Dec. 3, 2008
New Jersey Appeals Court Orders Records Unsealed in Case Against Giants Beer Vendor, Drunk Driver
Public Citizen Intervened in Personal Injury Case, Arguing That the First Amendment Requires Public Access to Court Records
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The filings in a well-publicized personal injury case involving a paralyzed girl and a drunk driver must be made available to the public, a New Jersey appeals court ruled today in response to an argument by Public Citizen.
The ruling by the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division unseals the documents in the case, including those detailing a multimillion-dollar settlement between the family and the company licensed to sell alcohol at Giants Stadium.
It’s the latest development in a story that began in 1999 when a drunken fan drove away from a Giants football game and slammed into another car, paralyzing a toddler who was an occupant in the other vehicle. The ensuing lawsuit focused public attention on the culture of intoxication at sporting events and led to the girl’s family winning a $105 million verdict – which was later overturned – against the driver and the stadium’s beer vendor.
Before the case could be retried, the New Jersey trial court last summer ordered all future proceedings in the case sealed to keep the girl’s estranged father from learning about the settlement. The fact that the case had settled, however, had already achieved widespread publicity.
Keeping the records in the case private would have had broad, harmful implications on the public’s right to know what happens in court, said Greg Beck, the Public Citizen attorney who handled the case on appeal, along with local counsel Alan Y. Medvin of Medvin & Elberg in Newark.
“If a desire for privacy was all that was needed to keep court records out of the public eye, then all court files could be sealed,” Beck said. “The larger issue here is the availability of court records to the public. Matters of great public importance are decided in courtrooms, and records of those proceedings should be available for citizen review.”
In its order unsealing of the proceedings from June 1, 2007, forward, the appellate court wrote: “Open access is the lens through which the public views our government institutions.”
By intervening in the case to unseal the records, Public Citizen sought to restore basic rights of access and ensure that the critical conversation about drunk driving, liability and justice wasn’t squelched.