A unanimous panel of the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II, ruled that the Washington State Patrol’s police traffic collision reports were not protected by federal law and had to be turned over to a citizen requesting accident reports for a specific location. Gendler v. Batiste, et al., Case No. 39333-6-II (Wash. Ct. App., Div. II, Nov. 24, 2010). The requester, Michael “Mickey” Gendler, suffered a devastating spinal-cord injury while biking across Seattle’s Montlake Bridge, leaving him a quadriplegic. The front wheel of Gendler’s bike wedged in a wide gap on the bridge and he was thrown head-first over his handlebars. After Gendler learned that other bicyclists had “similar debilitating accidents” on the Montlake Bridge, he made a public records request to the State Patrol for “all police reports relating to collisions involving bicycles on the Montlake Bridge in Seattle (SR 513).”
The State Patrol would only provide records if Gendler was able to identify the person involved and the collision date, while also telling Gendler that it did not maintain reports by location. Gendler found he could obtain specific records from the State Patrol’s website, but only after certifying that he would not use the records in a lawsuit against the State. In a separate action, Gendler sued the State over his injuries and that case recently settled.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the the trial court, holding that the State Patrol cannot hide behind a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) with the State Department of Transportation (“WSDOT”) and WSDOT’s federal privilege under 23 U.S.C. §409, barring use of collision data in lawsuits. The federal privilege is intended to allow WSDOT to compile and analyze accident data to better implement highway safety measures funded by the federal government without concern that such analysis would be used to support lawsuits against the State.
Although WSDOT has physical custody of the accident records based on the MOU, they are still State Patrol records and subject to disclosure if the State Patrol cannot show an appropriate exemption. While the State Patrol’s reports do provide information for WSDOT’s federally exempt accident tracking and analysis, WSDOT’s exemption does not bar disclosure because the State Patrol collects its accident information for other non-exempt law enforcement investigation purposes. Accordingly, the Court upheld the trial court’s order requiring the State Patrol to produce the requested reports without limitation, e.g. the waiver of lawsuit rights that the State Patrol sought for Gendler to receive the requested records.