Lawsuits may seal important facts about West blast

Five days after a fertilizer plant explosion, a flag flies from a damaged home as the damaged West Intermediate School is seen in the distance Monday, April 22, 2013, in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. last Wednesday killed 14 people and injured more than 160 others. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

WEST, Texas (AP) — Valuable health and safety information about the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West could be hidden from the public forever because a judge has approved confidentiality agreements for more than a dozen lawsuits relating to the case.

The agreements given approval by state District Judge Jim Meyer were requested by attorneys involved in at least 15 separate lawsuits. The result is that lawyers can label as confidential virtually all information uncovered as they prepare for trial.

“I’ve read hundreds of these. I read them all the time,” Richard Zitrin, a law professor who has testified before the U.S. Senate about secrecy in the courts, told The Dallas Morning News. “These are some of the most outrageous examples I have ever seen. It is completely unlimited.”

The information could include more details about injuries, safety testing of the fertilizer that exploded and what the city knew about the dangers posed by the West Fertilizer Co.

Fifteen people were killed in the April 2013 blast and hundreds injured.

Confidentiality agreements are common, but keeping secrets in lawsuits can have consequences for public health and safety. Products ranging from unsafe medicines to defective automobile tires and, more recently, faulty auto ignition switches have harmed the public while secrecy approved by the courts helped hide the dangers.

Legal scholars note that taxpayers cover the cost for the courts in which lawsuits are tried, which means the information found in those suits should be in the public domain.

“We may never know why the plant blew up, but the lawyers may,” said Dustin Benham, a law professor at Texas Tech University School of Law. Or the lawyers suing “may turn up absolutely nothing.” That fact could remain hidden, too, he said.

“I think the public would find it shocking that a court-sanctioned protective order keeps us from understanding what happened in West,” said Benham, who studies court secrecy.

John McCoy, a Wisconsin attorney defending Adair Grain, which owns the West fertilizer plant, said the fertilizer manufacturers and the attorneys for the victims drafted the agreements. The other lawyers made sure the agreements “didn’t hamper our ability to do what we need in the case.”


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