A New Jersey Superior Court judge has ordered Goodyear to release 14 of 31 disputed documents that had been sealed in a wrongful death case involving Goodyear Load Range E tires.
The two consumer watchdog/trial lawyer groups that sought the documents' release called the ruling a triumph for free speech and consumer safety, but Goodyear insisted that making the documents public will do nothing to help consumers.
``Our issue with the documents has always been one focused on the proprietary nature of the information related to our materials, manufacture and processes,'' the company said in a written statement.
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety petitioned the court for the release of the documents. The specific case involved a Chevrolet Suburban equipped with Goodyear Load Range E tires that was carrying U.S. Air Force personnel when it overturned. Three passengers were killed and three others injured. A tread separation in one of the tires allegedly caused the accident.
TLPJ Staff Attorney Rebecca Epstein told Tire Business the wrongful death lawsuit underlying the document release order has been settled, but provided no further details. Documents related to the suit were sealed as part of the settlement.
In his July 11 ruling, Judge Jack M. Sabatino allowed Goodyear to keep 17 documents secret, on the grounds that they were ``chiefly self-critical evaluations,'' the TLPJ said in a July 12 press release. However, the release of the other 14 ``may help save lives and limbs,'' he said.
``The very fact that the separation-prone...tires were or are in use in, of all things, ambulances, raises serious implications for public health and welfare,'' Judge Sabatino wrote in his decision. ``Even if the problems with (these) tires are now being solved, the apparent solution begs other questions, such as why did this happen in the first place and why did the problem persist for so long?''
The petition for the documents' release was part of Project ACCESS, a 13-year TLPJ campaign against court secrecy, the organization said.
``The court recognized that the public's right to know important safety information trumps private litigants' agreements to seal documents,'' said the TLPJ's Ms. Epstein in the July 11 release.
Goodyear, in its statement, noted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dropped its investigation of the company's Load Range E tires without ordering a recall. NHTSA found a total of 44 accidents causing 18 deaths and 158 injuries out of a total tire population of 21 million, the tire maker said.
In every such accident Goodyear or third parties have investigated, there has been evidence of severe overloading, underinflation, impact damage or faulty repairs, the company added.
``Special interest groups touting this decision are misleading the public about the true cause of concern related to tires-failure to properly operate and maintain them according to the manufacturers' recommendations,'' Goodyear said.
Goodyear is evaluating whether to appeal the decision, it said.
In January 2001, a Cincinnati law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against Goodyear and its former Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. unit accusing them of conducting a ``silent recall'' of Load Range E tires without informing the public of alleged defects. That suit was terminated ``some time ago,'' a Goodyear spokesman said.