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Firestone Tire Co. has lost the first round of its fight to keep secret documents from a product liability case that it settled last year. U.S. District Court Judge Anthony A. Alaimo ruled Wednesday in favor of media requests to intervene in the case and unseal documents involving a fatal Ford Explorer wreck in 1997. Lawyers for Ford Motor Co. and Firestone had filed the documents under seal during discovery and litigation of Van Etten v. Bridgestone/Firestone, No. CV298-069 (S.D. Ga. April 2, 1998). The sides settled confidentially, and some of the documents in the case were sealed. In his ruling, Alaimo said they would have stayed that way indefinitely were it not for Firestone’s August recall of more than 6 million defective tires, following some 103 deaths traced to them. The prominence and importance of the story, Alaimo wrote, influenced his decision. “(T)he public and media interest in cases such as the Van Etten case involving allegedly defective Bridgestone/Firestone tires and/or Ford Explorers is substantial, and deservedly so, because the use of defective automobile tires linked to numerous deaths raises serious public health and safety concerns,” he wrote. Lawyers for the Washington Post, CBS, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune asked the court to unseal the records at a hearing in Brunswick, Ga., on Sept. 19. FIRESTONE DEFENSE Lawyers for Firestone argued at the hearing that media companies had not filed a timely request to unseal the files because the case had been settled in November 1999. They also claimed that the material contained trade secrets that could hurt Firestone’s position if revealed to competitors. Ford had agreed previously to open its sealed files and did not contest the request to remove the seal. Though Alaimo discounted Firestone’s arguments, he granted the company’s motion for a stay of enforcement. Firestone now has until Oct. 4 to persuade the judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take up the issue. Mary Rose Papandrea, who represents CBS and the Washington Post, says she was delighted to receive Alaimo’s order. “We could not have written it better ourselves,” she says. During the hearing Sept. 19, Papandrea had argued that the files became public the moment Firestone filed them with the court. Firestone’s lawyer, Lisa Godby Wood of Brunswick’s Gilbert, Harrell, Gilbert, Summerford, Martin & Gregg, declined comment. I-95 AUTO WRECK The underlying case concerns a 19-year-old man who died in an auto wreck on I-95 in Camden County, Ga. Daniel Paul Van Etten, a freshman football player at the University of West Virginia, was on his way back to school from Florida in his Ford Explorer when the tread on the left rear Firestone tire separated from the rest of the tire. The Ford flipped and threw Van Etten onto the highway, where he died of “blunt head trauma.” Van Etten’s parents sued, charging Ford and Firestone were to blame for their son’s death. They asked $21 million for the value of their son’s life, pain and suffering, and funeral expenses. PROTECTIVE ORDERS Early in the case, both sides agreed to two protective orders, under which lawyers for both Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were able to classify certain materials as “confidential” and remove them from public scrutiny. But Alaimo found that sealing them indefinitely would hurt the media and the public. Also, the judge wrote, there is a “strong common law presumption in favor of public access,” the judge wrote, citing Brown v. Advantage Engineering, Inc., 960 F. 2d 1013, 1015 (11th Cir. 1992) and Alexander Grant & Co. Litigation, 820 F. 2d 352,355 (11th Circ. 1987). Firestone argued, relying on Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 104 S. Ct. 2199, 81 L. Ed. 2d 17 (1984) and Grant, that the media have no common law nor First Amendment right of public access to the company’s sealed “trade secrets.” Those cases allow protective orders to shield unfiled pretrial discovery from public view. But Alaimo said those cases cover only pretrial discovery material — not discovered materials filed with the court. And the company didn’t show specifically why each document should remain sealed. “Thus the Court is left simply to trust Bridgestone/Firestone that the contents of the documents are trade secrets,” he wrote. “This the Court refuses to do.” And Alaimo also questioned the quality of the trade secrets that the company sought to defend. “(I)t is far from clear how valuable the Bridgestone/Firestone information could possibly be, as it is already a few years old and mainly concerns the manufacturing processes and standards of a tire that has now been recalled in countries around the world,” he wrote.

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