A federal appeals court ruled that Ford Motor Co. can keep confidential certain data about the Bronco II sport-utility.
The data include the minutes of a 1982 meeting attended by top-level executives and agendas for 1988 and 1989 discussions of the vehicle's technical characteristics.
The material is shielded from disclosure by attorney-client privilege and the so-called 'work product' doctrine, said the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
The unanimous decision means Ford does not have to provide the documents in a product-liability suit brought by the estate of a man killed in a Bronco II rollover accident. Gerald Kelly's widow sought information related to the vehicle's development, marketing and safety.
Ford counsel John Thomas said, 'There have been close to a dozen cases in which other courts have held these exact same documents privileged.'
Thomas said the case is important because it gives parties to a lawsuit the right to an immediate appeal if a trial judge rejects their claim that material is privileged and need not be disclosed.
At issue are two sets of documents. The first is the minutes of a November 1982 meeting of Ford's policy and strategy committee at which then-general counsel Henry Nolte Jr. briefed the executives about a report on the Bronco II.
In a decision by Appeals Judge Edward Becker, the court said Ford can keep those minutes secret because the meeting was held for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.
Other documents in dispute were meeting agendas prepared by a Ford technical assistant for 1988 and 1989 discussions of technical aspects of the defense strategy in Bronco II litigation. One agenda had handwritten notes by the assistant, who was helping Ford's outside technical consultant, Failure Analysis Associates.
The appeals court said those documents are entitled to remain confidential under the work product doctrine, which covers material prepared in anticipation of litigation or trial.
At the time of the meetings, Ford was a defendant in 'numerous lawsuits alleging defects in the Bronco II,' the court said.
Disclosure of the information, the court said, would allow Kelly's experts to 'work backward and determine the methodology of the studies' and learn the 'issues of most concern' to Ford's defense team.
Kelly's estate has asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision. Lawyers for the estate declined to discuss the case.