Allstate exhibits remain public;

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Judge sees no trade secrets in material

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)

Allstate Insurance Co.’s request to seal exhibits in the first Hurricane Katrina insurance trial to be completed in federal court in Louisiana, saying they belong in the public domain.

Judge Sarah Vance said Thursday that the exhibits “were made part of the public record at trial, nearly four months ago, without any objection by any party. Because Allstate has provided no justification that outweighs the well-established presumption in favor of public access to judicial records, the court declines to place these exhibits under seal.”

Before the April trial of Slidell doctor Robert Weiss’ dispute with Allstate over the loss of his Treasure Isle home in Hurricane Katrina, several documents produced in discovery, including a claims handling manual and instructions to an outside adjusting firm working with Allstate, were placed under protective order. When the trial began, all of the exhibits, including those that had been placed under protective order, were read into the public record.

Weiss won a $2.8 million judgment against Allstate, and the parties later settled for a controversial sum. In July, when another person suing Allstate over an insurance claim wanted to get the exhibits, Allstate argued that the Weiss attorneys would violate the protective order by sharing the documents. The Weiss attorneys countered that the protective order expired when the documents were entered into the court record.

Vance laid the issue to rest Thursday, saying that Allstate failed to demonstrate that the material in the documents involved trade secrets.

Allstate does not point to a single document or excerpt of a document within the approximately 185 pages that comprise Exhibits 7, 31 and 31A that might be harmful to its competitive position,” she wrote.
Vance noted that the materials in question were largely “benign,” including a press release, list of publicly available phone numbers, tips for policyholders and suggested answers for questions posed by hurricane victims. “It is not apparent that these documents contain sensitive material of any kind.”

The court also said that it would be inappropriate to seal records because leaving them open would make it easier for people to sue Allstate. “The Court therefore does not find it appropriate to seal exhibits that have already been introduced into the public records simply because Allstate would like to prevent other Katrina plaintiffs from obtaining them in a more efficient, less expensive way.”

Vance also ruled Thursday that two national consumer groups, the California group the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which was being represented by the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Public Justice, had a right to intervene in the case over the record-sealing issues.
Rebecca Mowbray can be reached at [email protected] or at (504) 826-3417.

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