Secret settlement bill passes out of first committee

The Assembly Judiciary Committee passed a controversial bill authored by its chair, Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), to ensure that settlement agreements and court documents in cases involving significant risks to the public’s safety are publicly disclosable.

The bill prohibits parties from entering into a confidential settlement agreement if the dispute relates to a public danger “that has caused or is likely to cause repeated significant or substantial bodily injury or death”. This measure is meant to help warn the public about potentially harmful hazards, like faulty airbags or car seats, and creates a presumption of public access to certain court records filed under seal.

CNPA testified in support of AB 889, noting that access to this information would be a valuable tool for journalists investigating product liability or other issues where the public’s health or safety is threatened. Allowing media to report on these cases would speed up public attention to potential dangers and help deter future harm.

The California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, alleging that AB 889 would end the common use of protective orders in business litigation, and stymie the exchange of documents in the discovery process because the parties know that the documents could be subject to public access. The California Judges Association opposed the bill, arguing that the courts have no guidance on how to implement a measure like AB 889.

The bill was voted out of the Judiciary Committee on an 8-3 vote. The Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee will hear the bill next, where the measure will face increased scrutiny. The bill will likely need to be amended to address some of the oppositions’ legitimate concerns, in order to advance.