Efforts to curtail the practice have had little success.
After reports that General Motors had been entering into confidential settlements for years over its ignition switch issues, Sens Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced the Sunshine in Litigation Act of 2014. It would have prohibited protective orders unless a judge determines the order would not hide safety information from the public.
But business has opposed the concept in the past. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that a similar bill in 2009 threatened "the fundamental rights of litigants to privacy," and said it would burden the courts with parties refusing to engage in settlement talks. The 2014 bill died in committee.
There has been slightly more progress at the state level.
Within days after Richard Barber's 9-year-old son died in a hunting accident in Montana, Barber learned Remington had faced dozens of lawsuits over the same rifle. So Barber campaigned relentlessly for the Gus Barber Anti-Secrecy Act. Passed in 2005, the law bars courts in Montana from "concealing a public hazard" through protective orders and confidentiality agreements.
"It informs the public about critical information they need to take responsibility for their safety and that of their friends and family," Barber says.
Ten other states have some level of anti-secrecy laws — Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington — but experts say the scope and enforcement of the laws are uneven at best, in many cases because the definition of "public hazard" is vague.