Goodyear does not have to release confidential business documents that were part of a settled personal injury case, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled.
The Akron-based tire maker said it was pleased with the court's unanimous decision to protect the confidentiality of internal documents that contain proprietary information. Goodyear added it has always cooperated in providing confidential documents for official investigations and plaintiffs' attorneys preparing cases.
An attorney for one of the two watchdog groups that sued to obtain the documents, however, said the court missed the point of the case.
``The court's thinking is particularly disturbing because in general it means the public is completely unprotected when parties to a lawsuit agree to keep health and safety documents secret,'' said Rebecca Epstein, staff attorney for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ).
The current case derived from a 2000 lawsuit involving a GMC Suburban equipped with Goodyear Load Range E tires. The vehicle allegedly suffered a tread separation, causing a rollover that killed two U.S. Air Force personnel and injured three others.
Included in the settlement agreement was a provision sealing 31 documents Goodyear provided during the case's discovery period. The tire maker claimed the documents contained proprietary business information. After the settlement, however, TLPJ and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) sued for release of the documents, claiming they contained information that might prove the tires unsafe.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration connected Goodyear Load Range E tires with 18 deaths and 158 injuries during an investigation of the tires. After NHTSA closed its preliminary investigation in 2002 without ordering a recall, Goodyear initiated a proactive replacement program for 200,000 of the tires. TLPJ and CARS, however, claimed in their suit that the replacement program was inadequate, since it covered only 51 of more than 250 Load Range E sizes, types and brands.
To obtain an order to seal documents, TLPJ and CARS argued, a party to a lawsuit must show ``good cause'' why the information should remain secret.
In July 2002, a New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled that 14 of the documents pertained directly to the safety of Load Range E tires and ordered Goodyear to release them.
The following year, however, an appellate court reversed that decision, ruling that members of the public such as TLPJ and CARS had no right of access to documents sealed in an agreement settling a lawsuit.
The state Supreme Court affirmed the appellate ruling July 28. The lawsuit was settled before the papers could be filed, the high court ruled, thus making them off limits to the public.
``Sharing all of the information with plaintiffs' attorneys in preparation for litigation has never been at issue,'' Goodyear said in a statement. ``The company has always provided all of the documentation requested by trial lawyers to help prepare their cases. The information also was shared with NHTSA during its preliminary investigation into Goodyear's Load Range E tires. NHTSA's review of the documents was completed prior to closing its preliminary investigation.''
TLPJ and CARS are considering their further options in the case, Ms. Epstein said. They have a choice of asking the state Supreme Court for a motion to reconsider, or else appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, she added.