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Public Citizen Asks Texas Court to Deny Ford and Firestone Request to Keep Documents Secret in Tire Lawsuit

Sept. 18, 2000

Public Citizen Asks Texas Court to Deny Ford and Firestone Request to Keep Documents Secret in Tire Lawsuit

Documents Could Shed Light on What Companies Knew About Tire Defect

HOUSTON — Public Citizen today asked a state court to compel Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. to produce documents requested in a Texas lawsuit involving a car crash linked to a Firestone tire tread separation.

The lawsuit was filed by Peggy Turner Trahan of Crosby, Texas, who was seriously injured in a 1999 crash when the tread on her right rear tire separated, causing her 1996 Ford Explorer to leave the road. The defendants in the case, Ford and Firestone, have refused to respond to requests for certain categories of documents until a “suitable” protective order is in place. Trahan is represented by Richard Warren Mithoff of the Houston firm Mithoff & Jacks.

Public Citizen filed a brief in support of efforts by Ms. Trahan?s attorneys to compel the companies to turn over the documents without a protective order. Public Citizen has long been an advocate of keeping the judicial process open to the public and frequently opposes overly broad protective orders in court cases that prohibit disclosure of information concerning consumer health and safety.

“The public has an overriding interest in knowing all of the facts about Firestone tire tread separations and resulting crashes involving Ford Explorers,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “These companies have hidden this deadly problem for years, and even though the public is outraged and Congress is investigating, they are still trying to keep certain crucial information from the public.”

Ford and Firestone have faced lawsuits over tire separations and crashes since the early 1990s, but because they settled the cases with gag orders, the public and federal regulators were kept in the dark about the tire defect until earlier this year. At least 88 people have died and 250 have been injured in the U.S. in crashes caused by Firestone tire tread separations. The public became aware of the problem only after the news media reported earlier this year that the companies had recalled Firestone tires in foreign countries.

In an affidavit filed with District Judge John Donovan in Houston, Claybrook said the documents could:

  • help the public and the federal government determine the extent to which the tire problem is a design defect affecting many more tires than have thus far been recalled, as well as the role of manufacturing errors at the Decatur, Ill., plant;
  • answer questions about the safety of Ford Explorers and the extent to which Ford?s decision to lower the air pressure in tires on Explorers increased the risk of tire failure;
  • shed light on how much Ford and Firestone knew about the defects in Firestone tires and the deadly combination of the tires and the Ford Explorer, and when they obtained that knowledge; and,
  • be instrumental in determining how well the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is doing its job and suggesting methods to improve its performance in the future.

Among the documents requested of Firestone are those concerning “blowout stability test and vehicle stability test records, test protocols and test results for the subject tire”; Mold Profile Drawings, or Cross Section Drawings, to which its tires were manufactured; and records concerning “training of operators and tire builders” at the Decatur plant, “quality control manuals” and “training materials.”

Ford is withholding documents on vehicle stability and design, which might show whether the design of the Explorer makes it more likely to roll over when a tire loses its tread, according to the Public Citizen brief.

“This information should not be subject to a protective order because it concerns a pressing issue of public health and safety,” said Amanda Frost, the Public Citizen attorney who filed the brief. “Consumers cannot determine the risk of continuing to drive vehicles with non-recalled Firestone tires until they know how they performed in company tests. Moreover, Ford Explorers may be so dangerous that consumers will choose not to drive them once they learn the now-hidden corporate data on the instability of the vehicle.”