In first Challenge to Consumer Complaint Database, Court Orders Release of Company’s Name

Monday, April 21, 2014

A company whose product may have caused an infant’s death may soon have its identity revealed following a long-running legal battle involving the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).


A complaint was filed with the CPSC in 2011 by an unidentified local government agency that said the company’s product was responsible for the fatality. The company responded by filing suit in federal court, claiming it had done nothing wrong, while demanding its name and details of the case be sealed and kept off a publicly accessible database maintained by the CPSC.


U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams sided with the company and ordered the CPSC to keep the complaint hidden from the public, saying it was “materially inaccurate” and could harm “Company Doe’s” reputation.


Three consumers groups (Public Citizen, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union) and several newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, objected to the ruling and filed a petition with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to have it overturned.


A panel of judges ruled unanimously on Wednesday that Williams had erred in allowing Company Doe to fight its case in secret. The appellate justices ordered the court records unsealed, which could result in the company’s name being revealed.


However, Company Doe could ask for the entire Fourth Circuit to reconsider the decision or seek help from the U.S. Supreme Court. But even if the circuit ruling stands, its order would only apply to court records in the case. It would not require the CPSC to make the original complaint available for public viewing in its database.




The database,, stores consumer complaints about harmful products and business reports of possible hazardous products. It’s a product of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Federal Appeals Court Orders Unmasking of ‘Company Doe’ (by Jacob Gershman, Wall Street Journal)

Appeals Court: Consumer Case Improperly Sealed (Associated Press)

Company Doe v. Public Citizen (Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals)

Has Consumer Product Safety Commission Gone from Doing Too Little to Doing Too Much? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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