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Washington State Patrol Must Unconditionally Disclose Collision Information

The Washington State Court of Appeals held that the Washington State Patrol (WSP) must disclose records about traffic accidents in specific locations (collision records) following a public records request without first requiring the requester to sign a statement that the records will not be used in litigation against the state.

Michael Gendler, a Seattle attorney, was rendered quadriplegic by an accident on the Montlake Bridge caused by his bicycle tire wedging into the bridge grating. He discovered that other bicyclists had been injured in similar circumstances and made a public records request from the WSP for other bicycle accidents at the location. WSP could not provide the records, but told him they were available on the WSP website, but only if he first certified that he would not use the records in a lawsuit against the state. Gendler wanted to keep open the option of using the material in a lawsuit so he filed a state court action complaining that the WSP was violating the Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 46.52 RCW.

After allowing the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to intervene, the trial court held that WSP was violating the PRA and must provide Gendler the requested records. The court also granted Gendler $140,798.79 in attorney fees, costs and penalties. The WSP appealed.

The court of appeals noted that federal law, 23 U.S.C. § 409 prohibited the disclosure of accident records if they have been collected for the purpose of satisfying 23 U.S.C. § 402, which requires the states to compile such records and use them to plan highway safety improvements. However, there is an exception for records which, although they are used to satisfy § 402, were originally compiled for another purpose.

In 1937, 29 years before Congress passed § 402, the Washington State legislature enacted the Washington Motor Vehicle Act which required the WSP to file, tabulate and analyze-all accident reports and annually publish statistical information on them showing the number, location, frequency and circumstances of the accidents. Thus, the WSP had an independent statutory requirement to compile the information sought by Gendler. It did not matter that WSP provides the information to WSDOT, that WSDOT maintains the records on a joint website or that the information would not be available from WSDOT, "the WSP must produce its reports in compliance with its independent statutory obligation and as such must disclose those reports when request under the PRA." The judgment of the trial court was affirmed. Gendler's request for attorney fees on appeal was allowed with the amount to be determined by a commissioner of the court of appeals. See: Gendler v. Batiste, Wn.App. 242 P.3d 947 (2010).

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Related legal case

Gendler v. Batiste