Gendler v. Batiste – Public Records Act and Traffic Accident Reports

In Gendler v. Batiste, the Court of Appeals held that the Washington State Patrol (WSP) was required to disclose historical bicycle accident records of accidents occurring on Seattle’s Montlake Bridge.  The requestor had suffered serious injuries when his bike tire became wedged in the bridge’s grating.  The requestor suspected that the bridge had been unsafe for cyclists since 1999 when the State replaced the bridge decking, and therefore, he sought records of other bicycle accidents from the WSP.  The WSP claimed that these records were exempt from public disclosure under federal law, 23 U.S.C. § 409, unless the requestor agreed not to use the information in litigation against the State. 

Under the Federal Highway Safety Act, states are required to identify and correct high-collision locations by collecting traffic records of accident locations, injury types, and environmental conditions.  Section 409 of the Act protects states from tort liability created by the increased self-reporting of hazardous collision data and provides that reports or data compiled or collected for the purpose of identifying, evaluating, or planning the safety enhancement of potential accident sites “shall not be subject to discovery or admitted into evidence in a Federal or State court proceeding or considered for other purposes in any action for damages arising from any occurrence at a location mentioned or addressed” in such reports or data.  The WSP argued that its police traffic collision reports fell under § 409 protection because it provided and WSDOT collected the data for the purposes of identifying and correcting high-collision locations. 

The court disagreed with the WSP, relying heavily upon Pierce County v. Guillen, 537 U.S. 129 (2003), a previous U.S. Supreme Court case reviewing the application of § 409 to Washington’s Public Records Act.  Guillen held that § 409 was inapplicable to information compiled or collected for purposes unrelated to identifying locations and priorities for improvements on the basis of crash experience pursuant to federal law.  The WSP is required to prepare accident reports on state highways under RCW 46.52.060, which the court considered an independent statutory obligation.  Because the WSP did not prepare or use the reports for Federal Highway Safety Act purposes, the protection offered by § 409 did not extend to the WSP by virtue of the fact that it designated WSDOT as its records custodian.  Therefore, the court concluded that while WSDOT was protected by § 409, the WSP was not because it prepared the accident reports for ordinary law enforcement purposes and not for purposes of complying with the Federal Highway Safety Act.

This case should have limited application to municipalities.  First, § 409 does not exempt accident reports from disclosure completely, but only provides that the reports or data cannot be admitted as evidence in a subsequent lawsuit for damages.  Section 409 is not a basis for withholding or redacting documents pursuant to a public records request; the WSP only tried to require the requestor to certify that he would not use the documents in a subsequent lawsuit prior to disclosure.  Second, there should be very limited circumstances in which a municipality is generating or compiling accident reports for Federal Highway Safety Act purposes.  If the reports or data are compiled or collected for unrelated purposes and are held by agencies that are not pursuing Federal Highway Safety Act purposes, § 409 protection will not apply at all.  Simply forwarding accident reports to WSDOT will not protect the documents in a subsequent proceeding.

The case is available here.

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