Hush Money?

Uncovering Documents Sealed In Firestone Lawsuit Settlements

Over the last eight years more than 100 people have died in accidents linked to Firestone tires. So why did the problem come to light only this summer?

Dan Rather's investigation into the Firestone crisis reveals that although many people, including the families of victims and their lawyers, knew about the alleged defect in Firestone's tires, the truth was kept quiet by a series of secrecy agreements signed as part of the company's legal settlements.

All this infuriates people like Gail Touchton, the widow of a Florida minister who was one of the most recent victims to die in an accident blamed on a defective Firestone tire. "If the covering up and the lying had not occurred, if the truth had been exposed sooner, my husband would still be here," says Touchton.

Touchton's husband, the Reverend Bill Touchton, used to be the preacher at the Wingate Baptist Church in Jacksonville. On July 2 of this year, he gave his last sermon.

The next day, on Interstate 95 while Reverend Touchton was a passenger in a friend's Ford Explorer, the tread on the left rear Firestone ATX tire got sheared off. The rest of the tire remained inflated. The vehicle fishtailed before it flipped over several times, killing Touchton instantly.

Gail Touchton is suing both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, claiming the companies are responsible for her husband's death. "Lives can be saved in this process of what I'm doing," says Touchton. "And that's my see that lives are being saved, and that the truth is being exposed."

It was in 1992, eight years before the Reverend Touchton died, that the first lawsuits were filed blaming accidents on the same problem - tread separations on Firestone tires. Since then, 60 Minutes II has been informed, nearly 200 lawsuits have been filed. But until now virtually everything about the suits, including tens of thousands of documents examined by lawyers, has remained a secret - shielded from public view.

Kim Van Etten's son Daniel, a football player at the University of West Virginia, was killed in a tread separation accident in 1997. A year and a half after she sued, Van Etten settled with Firestone and Ford behind closed doors. Part the settlement included an agreement to keep secret the amount the companies paid out to Van Etten.

And the money was not the only thing kept secret in the settlement. "Well, they sealed some documents but I have no idea what's in them," explains Van Etten.

In fact, many internal Firestone documents were sealed in Van Etten's case under what is known as protective orders. Plaintiffs' lawyers have to sign them before a company agrees to turn any documents over. Firestone declined a request for an interview about the lawsuits and these protective orders. But in a Senate hearing Firestone executive vice president Gary Crigger testified the company needed to keep the documents secret for what he called ompetitive reasons.

But plaintiffs' lawyers say for years Firestone has been sealing documents that relate directly to safety issues. For example, a document from Van Etten's suit shows that more than 1,400 tires made at a Firestone plant in Wilson, N.C., were returned by consumers in 1992 - eight years before the company recall - because of belt separations or suspected belt separations. The data in the document comes from sealed Firestone documents that were provided to Rowe Brogdon, Van Etten's lawyer.

The tire that shredded in the accident that killed Van Etten's son came from the Wilson plant as did tires that figure in at least 22 other lawsuits. "They knew in the early '90s; they knew what their problems were. They let it go. They put quantity over quality," says Brogdon.

Brogdon can talk about the document about the Wilson plant only because CBS News and other news organizations petitioned a judge to unseal it. Brogdon says there are many other documents that are still sealed that he cannot talk about for fear of being held in contempt of court.

All the time Brogdon says he had this information about Firestone tires, the federal government says, it was kept in the dark about the possible safety problem. Dr. Sue Bailey, the new administrator in charge of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says her agency should have been informed a lot sooner.

The first known death linked to the Firestone problem was in 1992. Yet, it wasn't until much later that the administration became aware of a problem. "It was not really until the end of last year that we began to see the numbers increasing," Bailey says.

Bailey is urging Congress to pass legislation that would pressure companies to get that information to her agency earlier.

A former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Joan Claybrook - now the president of the consumer organization Public Citizen - has told Congress protective orders should be abolished. "These orders are unethical. I think among other things the American Bar Association ought to declare them unethical," says Claybrook.

A bar association task force, headed by corporate attorney Lorna Schofield, has been looking into these questions. She says companies need protective orders to defend themselves. "Some times, it's just a matter of a plaintiff's lawyer finding some sexy document, that would be interesting to the media," says Schofield.

According to Schofield, protective orders move cases along a lot faster for lawyers who sue companies like Firestone and who get a percentage of every settlement. "The purpose of civil cases is for a private party to settle its dispute with another private party and to get money for its injury. That's what the system is designed to do. It's not designed to publicize all the ills in our society," says Schofield.

In her case, Kim Van Etten says she had no choicbut to get a protective order and agree to secrecy. The alternative was to face a long, painful and emotionally draining court battle. "It was killing me, and they said it could be six years," she says.

Van Etten says she had her lawyer, Brogdon, deal with the legal arrangements and sign the protective order.

Recently, though, Van Etten has been having second thoughts about the secrecy agreement that helped her win a big settlement with Firestone. "I literally, I'm telling you, I felt like I killed those people. And in all honesty, I do have a hand in it, and I'll have to answer to it for some time in my life or after my life," says Van Etten.