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Federal judge sides with CBS News, orders Hertz to unseal stolen car data

Judge rules that The Hertz Corp. must unseal data showing how many vehicles reported stolen and how many reports inaccurate.

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ESTERO — A federal judge in Delaware has sided with CBS News and ordered The Hertz Corp. to unseal data showing the depth and breadth of its policy of reporting rented vehicles stolen and shows the number of police reports filed and the number of those reports found to be inaccurate.

Bankruptcy Judge Mary Walrath ruled at a Feb. 9 hearing where the broadcaster argued that withholding the numbers violates the public’s right to know and that the data provides information not available anywhere else.

The motion to unseal the data is part of a lawsuit accusing the Lee County-based rental car company of reporting vehicles stolen while the drivers are in good standing, leading to dozens of false arrests. According to the Philadelphia law firm behind the lawsuit, more than 180 claimants are asking for $530 million.

As of early Feb. 10 the data has not been made public, but the company told CBS News in a statement that “of the more than 25 million rental transactions by Hertz in the United States per year, 0.014% fall into the rare situation where vehicles are reported to the authorities after exhaustive attempts to reach the customer.” According to Anna Werner, the CBS News correspondent covering the story, that amounts to about 3,500 customers per year.

The broadcaster filed the motion to unseal the information in response to a December filing where Hertz included the numbers but, citing confidentiality, filed the information under seal.

CBS News argued in court papers that the numbers contain insights on the size and scope of the issue and is not publicly available.

“The public has a constitutional and common law right to access judicial records such as the objections by Hertz already filed under seal and the information it seeks to (file) under seal,” attorneys for the network wrote in the filing.

They argued two sentences later “that Hertz cannot credibly assert, let alone prove, that the information it seeks to protect is sensitive, confidential or of any commercial value. Indeed, if this information is deemed confidential, it is difficult to contemplate what would not be.”

Hertz, for its part, argued in court papers that “this information contains highly sensitive confidential, commercial information” and that “due to the sensitive, commercial nature of the confidential information” it must not be made public.

The lawsuit is being heard in federal bankruptcy court, where it moved after Hertz filed Chapter 11 last year.

Hertz has denied the accusations in the lawsuit, telling the Business Observer in December that it didn’t dispute that it occasionally reports rented vehicles stolen, but that “the vast majority of these cases involve renters who were many weeks or even months overdue returning vehicles and who stopped communicating with us well beyond the scheduled due date.”

CBS News has been reporting on the issue for several months. On the morning of Feb. 9, Werner aired a piece on CBS Mornings about a Colorado man arrested for allegedly not returning a rented car in Georgia, a state he's never visited.


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