One of the foundational principles of the public judiciary is that judicial proceedings should be open and transparent for the public. For this reason, filings, papers, and arguments made by parties in a lawsuit are typically considered part of the public record and can be viewed by others, although sometimes for a small fee. In very limited circumstances, parties can request that a court “seal” a paper that is filed, or the record of the proceeding in its entirety, in order to protect the privacy of parties involved. This can happen when one party is a minor or when sensitive information is being discussed, such as with medical records, cases involving sexual or child abuse, or situations when confidential financial information is at issue. Even when a court agrees to seal a record, the parties cannot use that to their advantage to keep important information from another party in a related lawsuit, as illustrated by a recent decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
In a recent bus accident case in Tennessee, T.K. brought claims against L.B. for the death of her 13-year-old son, who was riding his bike to school when he was struck and killed by a truck driven by L.B. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, it was resolved on undisclosed terms through a settlement. Together, the parties filled a joint motion for approval of the settlement by the court, and they also filed a request for the settlement and records to be sealed. The judge issued an “agreed order” sealing the entire file and record from the proceedings, based on the sensitive nature of the issues in the case and out of respect for the privacy of T.K.’s son and her family.
Shortly thereafter, T.K. filed a separate lawsuit against the company that provided school bus services to her son’s school. She argued that the company was negligent in operating their bus on the morning that T.K.’s son was killed and that it arrived too soon. As a result, T.K.’s son missed the bus and was forced to bike to school. The bus company immediately responded by asserting that L.B. was the one at fault for the accident and that issues other than their bus schedule were the real proximate cause of T.K.’s son’s death. In connection with these arguments, the bus company sought documents from T.K.’s lawsuit with L.B., as well as records related to the settlement. T.K. repeatedly refused to provide the documents on the ground that they had been sealed. The court eventually directed the bus company to obtain the documents and records directly from the judge involved in the original lawsuit. The bus company sought to intervene in that case to get access to the sealed documents, but the original court denied the motion to intervene. The bus company appealed.
On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that there was a clear right within Tennessee to intervene in a case for the purpose of petitioning a court to unseal documents and allow public inspection of them. The court further noted that this interest is even more apparent when a party needs access to sealed documents in order to defend itself in ongoing litigation. While the Court of Appeals acknowledged that there were very valid reasons for T.K. wanting to keep sensitive documents sealed, including protecting the privacy of the family and their deceased son, as well as protecting them from individuals who might attempt to exploit the settlement that was reached, it also acknowledged that T.K. could not use the order sealing the documents in order to prevent the bus company from fully defending its case.
Since the Court of Appeals itself was not privy to the information that was sealed, whether it would be prejudicial to unseal the documents, or whether some documents could be sealed while others were unsealed, it vacated the lower court denial and remanded the proceedings so that the trial court could reevaluate its decision in light of the issues and concerns identified by the Court of Appeals. It further noted that if the trial court determined that the record needed to remain sealed, it needed to articulate the compelling reason that required the continued sealing of the records and provide sufficient factual detail so that the decision could be properly evaluated by the appellate court.
Dealing with the sealing and unsealing of records can be a complicated process. If you are attempting to seal records related to a sensitive personal or financial matter, or you are concerned that confidential records may be unsealed, knowledgeable Tennessee wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley can help you navigate the sealed record process. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.
Related Blog Posts:
Tennessee Court Rules that Affidavit is Not Conclusive Evidence of Lack of Material Fact, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, April 25, 2017.
Managing Parallel Criminal and Civil Proceedings in Personal Injury Claims, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 24, 2016
Tennessee Accident Tips, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 16, 2016