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Court Throws Out ‘Public Hazard’ Label on Ford Explorer

A state law that allows for products to be declared a “public hazard” was wrongly used in a South Florida case involving a Ford Explorer, a state appeals court ruled, invalidating a judge's declaration that the vehicle is hazardous.

Florida has a law called the Sunshine in Litigation Act, passed in 1990, that says that courts can't grant orders during the course of litigation that effectively conceal that products are “public hazards.” That is, a company can't in the course of a lawsuit seek to have secrets about its product protected as a means of concealing from the public that the product is dangerous.

Last year, the family of Lance Crossman Hall, a 17-year-old killed in 1997 in a Ford Explorer rollover crash, filed a motion in a Miami court asking a judge to find that the Explorer is a “public hazard” under the Sunshine in Litigation Act. The Hall family has been fighting Ford in the courts for years, having won a lawsuit in 2005 that was later reversed.

The motion sought to prevent the ability of Ford to “conceal” any information related to its vehicle, including trade secrets or privileged documents because that would violate the statute, the family said.

But at the time, there was no request by Ford to limit disclosure of any documents, and at a hearing on the motion, Judge David Miller declined to hear witnesses for the car company. Miller said he had previously heard sufficient evidence of the danger of the Ford Explorer and ruled that it was a public hazard.

On Wednesday, the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned Miller's ruling, saying essentially that the law was wrongly applied because Ford wasn't trying to conceal anything. The Hall family and their lawyers seemed to be simply trying to get the vehicle declared a hazard for the purpose of influencing the case and other cases against Ford involving Explorers.

“The statute does not invite notices or motions simply to determine that a particular (product) is a public hazard,” a unanimous three judge panel of the DCA said in an opinion written by Judge Vance E. Salter, who slammed the lower court's handling of the case as “not an evidentiary hearing in any traditional sense of that term.”

The public hazard law is applicable “only if the trial court has entered a confidentiality order, or if there is a pending motion by the defending party for a confidentiality order,” the DCA ruled. In this case, there was no such request or order.

The court noted, however that there was a confidentiality order in a federal court case involving several rollover accidents and that the family was bound by that order. But it said the Sunshine in Litigation Act couldn't override the federal court order. That case is before a federal court in Indiana.

The appeals judges noted that it appeared that the family wanted to hang the label on Ford for the negative impact it might have in other arenas.

“The respondent's counsel, who include lawyers and firms involved in many other lawsuits against Ford, wasted no time in disseminating the order,” Salter wrote. “The statute was intended to preclude the concealment of specific information about a 'public hazard,' not simply to provide a tactical pejorative for counsel to use in other cases.”

The ability of a negative label like “public hazard” to quickly come to be used in other settings in the Internet era was noted by the court.

“Such a label has significant and far-reaching consequences in a day when court orders can make it around the world before the sun sets on the day they are filed,” Salter wrote.

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