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Old 12-01-2005, 03:59   #1 (permalink)
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US:Groups fight for Volvo data

Groups fight for Volvo data

But Ford says rollover test information is a trade secret and should not be made public.

Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON-- A legal battle between Ford Motor Co., plaintiff attorneys and consumer groups is escalating, with hearings scheduled in at least three states about whether the public should be allowed to see a set of Volvo documents used as evidence in rollover trials.

The court fights will heat up today when two groups, Public Citizen and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, are expected to file a motion in Florida asking for the documents to be unsealed. The groups say the documents show Volvo considered roof strength an important safety element as it designed its first SUV.

The documents -- which include several test reports compiled by Volvo as it engineered and designed the XC-90 SUV -- have become important as Ford and other automakers face hundreds of lawsuits related to rollover accidents where roof strength is an issue.

The reports show that Volvo engineers were dismayed at the results of tests of early prototypes in which the SUV was rolled and its roof crushed in, inflicting potentially fatal injuries on a test dummy. In response, Volvo engineers went to work strengthening the roof and improving seat belts to hold passengers in their seats.

"Bill Ford boasts on television ads about Ford being a technology driven company, but Ford behind the scenes is trying to cover up the technology that the public really needs to know about -- the safety technology of its vehicles," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford says the documents contain vital trade secrets and has sought to keep them under seal in courts in Florida, Texas and Colorado. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has decided to keep the documents out of the public docket on a proposed federal regulation on roof strength.

"The Volvo documents have been provided, and will continue to be provided, to plaintiffs, their attorneys and their experts who demonstrate a need for the documents in legal proceedings," Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said.

"However, the documents should remain sealed to the general public because they contain Volvo's trade secrets regarding the design and testing of its products," Vokes added.

Sean Kane, president of SRS Inc., a Massachusetts legal research firm, said the Volvo documents are important because they challenge a long-held view expressed by the auto industry: that there is no correlation between stronger roofs and fewer injuries.

"These documents put the lie to the manufacturers' position on roof strength," Kane said. "They are not only harmful to the industry, they are harmful to NHTSA. They show NHTSA is coming in way under the state-of-the-art in its update of a standard that hasn't been updated in 30 years."

As the Florida fight indicates, both sides in the dispute consider the Volvo documents crucial to the roof-strength debate.

The Detroit News obtained the documents at the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville, Fla., and reported the contents of the documents on March 29.

In April, the documents were removed from the public docket at the request of Ford, which said they were covered by a protective order imposed earlier at the trial.

Trial Lawyers for Public Justice said it got involved in the case because access to exhibits used as evidence in open court is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution.

"These particular documents are enormously important in terms of public health and safety," said Leslie Bruckner, an attorney with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. "We think it's vital these documents be opened so the public can learn the hazards of these vehicles."

In Texas, the Volvo documents were used as evidence in two trials that resulted in multi-million dollar jury verdicts. In both cases, Ford is fighting to keep the documents secret after the trial has concluded. The next hearing is in Brownsville on Dec. 8.

The Texas Supreme Court is weighing whether to reverse an appeals court ruling that the Volvo documents are not trade secrets and should be unsealed.

In Washington, the Volvo documents have twice been placed on the Department of Transportation's public docket, a Web site that collects comments from interested parties on regulations. Both times, NHTSA removed the documents.
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