WASHINGTON, D.C. --- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled this week that the government can't withhold key data on major car accidents from the public.

The court decision, centering around crash information gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, potentially ends years of litigation, the Los Angeles Times reported. The ruling could make the so-called Early Warning data available to consumer watchdogs and journalists.

Tire makers, car manufacturers, motorcycle companies, child-seat producers and others report this data to the safety administration to comply with a 2000 law. The law, passed largely in response to a string of fatal rollover accidents involving Ford Explorers with Firestone tires, requires such companies to report early information on defects, injuries, deaths and damage related to their products. The law's intent was to help regulators establish trends in accidents related to specific products, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Companies began reporting the accident data to the agency in 2003, but industry groups have fought to keep the data closed to public disclosure. The leader in this fight has been the Rubber Manufacturers Association, a tire industry group. The association has argued that the accident information includes proprietary data and that the law doesn't require public access. The group has also contended that public disclosure of the data will spur unwarranted public concern and personal injury lawsuits.

Consumer rights group Public Citizen, the plaintiff in the case, disagrees. The group said it plans to request the data under the Freedom of Information Act.

It's still not clear whether all data must be available to the public, or just accident information regarding property damage, injury or death, the Times reported. Public Citizen argues that no information should be withheld from the public. Industry groups, however, say that some data, such as warranty claims, should be exempt because they fall under the category of trade secrets or privileged financial information.