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etc: Capitol Notebook Edition


Not content with merely ruling the world, corporate interests and the insurance industry are now targeting a bill that would allow Montana consumers to know whether dangerous products are hidden by confidential court documents.

Senate Bill 196, also known as the “Gus Barber Anti-Secrecy Act,” is named after a 9-year-old Gallatin County boy killed in 2000 when the Remington Model 700 bolt-action rifle his mother was holding suddenly fired when she clicked off the safety.

The errant bullet tore through a horse trailer and hit the boy in the abdomen. He bled to death as his family rushed him to the hospital.

While the incident was tragic enough, Richard Barber, the boy’s father, discovered that the manufacturer had long known about a defect in the rifle’s shooting mechanism. But that knowledge had been covered up by company executives, in part through confidential settlement agreements with other victims of the malfunctioning firearms.

Such agreements are common in product-liability cases for two reasons: Companies don’t want other injured parties to know how much they’re paying to end a lawsuit, and incriminating internal memos and other documents—smoking guns, if you will±—can discreetly be kept out of the public eye.

The issue offers a glimpse into the chilling world of liability cost-benefit analysis, wherein the price of fixing known defects is weighed against the number of consumers who might reasonably be expected to die or be injured because of them—and the likelihood of being successfully sued by anyone bullheaded enough to take on a manufacturing giant.

Since watching his son’s life ebb away, Barber, a Republican building contractor, has embarked upon a relentless campaign to ensure that consumers are apprised of defects in all types of products so further tragedies can be avoided. His efforts, however, are being vehemently countered by business interests and their political boosters nearly every step of the way.

SB 196, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wheat, D-Bozeman, and backed by the Montana Department of Justice, would prohibit state courts from authorizing judgments or orders that conceal a known “public hazard.” The bill is now encountering the same opposition that killed two similar bills in the 2003 Legislature.

At a hearing last week before the House Judiciary Committee, bill opponents defended industry’s right to hide while innocents are killed and maimed. They preached about the personal responsibility of consumers but not the rampant greed and malfeasance of product makers.

“Why don’t we just strap everybody up and stop living?” said Helena attorney and General Motors lobbyist Mona Jamison. “This bill shoots at a mosquito with an atomic bomb.”

Through amendments, the medical profession has already excused itself from SB 196. With all the dark suits elbowing lawmakers in the halls, one wonders where the Grim Reaper will strike next.

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