WASHINGTON-Ford Motor Co. confidentially settled a personal injury lawsuit in one state involving Ford Explorers, even as another state's senate considered a bill that would make confidential settlement agreements in personal injury lawsuits much more difficult.
Ford announced the settlement with the Gonzalez family Sept. 18, the day before the case was to begin before a state court in Brownsville, Texas.
Mario Gonzalez Sr. filed the suit after an accident in July 2000 when a Firestone tire failed on his 1998 Ford Explorer near Brownsville, allegedly causing the vehicle to roll over. Mr. Gonzalez's wife, Margarita, was killed in the accident and his son, Alfredo, seriously injured.
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. had settled with the Gonzalez family at the end of August. As with Ford, the tire maker did not disclose the amount of the settlement or any of its details.
Confidentiality of trade secrets is a keystone of settlement agreements in personal injury lawsuits. However, there have been a number of challenges to such confidentiality in the wake of the Ford/Firestone litigation.
Media organizations including the Washington Post Co., the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune Co. and CBS Broadcasting petitioned a federal court in Atlanta for the release of sealed Bridgestone/Firestone documents in a lawsuit settlement. A judge granted that motion, but an appeals court panel overturned that decision, ordering the judge to determine whether the public interest overrides Bridgestone/Firestone's need to keep its trade secrets.
Also, the California Senate has a bill before it that would forbid in most cases the sealing of documents obtained through discovery or contained in settlement agreements not filed with the court.
If made law, the bill would cover ``any action based upon injury, wrongful death or financial loss allegedly caused by a defective product,'' according to the bill's language. Exceptions to the law would be granted only if the party seeking confidentiality could show ``good cause'' to the court why the information should be kept secret.
Ford and BFS are probably looking at ``the tip of the iceberg'' when it comes to motions to force disclosure of sealed documents, according to Andrew Popper, a professor at American University Law School.
``You're probably looking at some years of this,'' Mr. Popper said, adding that the media and plaintiffs' attorneys will particularly seek to find whether both companies deliberately tried to withhold damaging information from the courts and the public.
``I don't think the pattern of conscious non-disclosure and fraud is present here,'' he said. ``But it's not going to be short, and it's not going to be inexpensive'' to prove that, he added.