Brian Chase, senior partner at the Newport Beach product defect law firm of Bisnar Chase, spoke before the California Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee on May 4 about the importance of Assembly Bill 889, which will prevent secrecy agreements from concealing critical information about product defects and environmental hazards from consumers. AB 889 was introduced by Assembly Member Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz).
Stone said during the committee hearing that the main issue here is that numerous defective products, over the decades, have caused death or serious bodily injury to consumers, and that crucial information has not been available to the consumers because of secret agreements that are shielded from public view.
Chase said the passage of AB 889 would reduce unnecessary and dangerous secrecy in litigation by preventing civil litigants from using overly broad protective orders or secrecy provisions in settlement agreements.
“Secrecy in litigation is sometimes necessary for protecting personal information and legitimate trade secrets, which is carved out in this bill and there are protections for that,” he said. But, Chase added, it is not appropriate to hide the serious dangers posed by defective products from public scrutiny.
He talked about clients he has represented where “metal shrapnel has blown through the airbag and blinded them and maimed their faces.”
“All those documents are still confidential from the public,” Chase said. “The only reason we know about (defective Takata airbags) is because the federal government got involved and there was a criminal investigation. But for that, all of this would still be secret and I’ve got a file cabinet full of documents that are secret.”
He also brought up the issue of the General Motors ignition switch scandal. Bisnar Chase settled the first wrongful death case involving the faulty ignition switch, which killed a woman by rendering her airbag ineffective. But all that was kept under wraps because of a confidential agreement. That fatal crash occurred on July 4, 2004 in Visalia, Calif., when Shara Lynn Towne’s Saturn Ion sedan jumped a curb and hit a utility pole head-on in a parking lot.
The Ion’s airbags did not deploy. Bisnar Chase filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Towne’s husband and children against GM. The automaker confidentially settled Towne’s case out of court and the case was dismissed in September 2007. No one heard about Towne or what caused her tragic, untimely death.
“If that had come out 10 years ago, maybe all the other people who died after that, before a recall was issued, would not have died,” Chase said. “I think we can save a lot of lives, long after we’re all gone, if a bill like this becomes law.”