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Washington State Supreme Court Clarifies Public Records Act Guarantees

In a State Of Washington case involving their Public Records Act (PRA) and its interaction between the statutory duty of the Washington State Patrol (WSP) to compile traffic accident information, and federal statute 23 U.S.C. § 409, which protects from discovery records collected to bused for the federal fire hazard program, the Supreme Court of Washington decided for Michael W. Gendler, who sought location-specific traffic accident records relevant to his cause.

Gendler was bicycling across the Montlake Bridge in Seattle when his front tire wedged into a seam in the bridge deck grating, which caused him to be thrown over the handlebars, rendering him quadriplegic. Under the PRA, he requested records of a similar type only to find the release of those records involved signing a waiver barring him from using those records in litigation against the state. He declined to acknowledge the waiver and the state declined to provide the requested records. Gendler brought suit against WSP.

Both sides sought summary judgment, citing issues surrounding the PRA. Trial court granted the Department of Transportation (DOT) co-defendant status, as the records were scanned into a database maintained by the DOT.

The issue brought before bar by WSP was that the accident reports in question were, per statutory duty, created by the WSP and liable to public scrutiny, then scanned into the DOT’s database for use in another field – the federal Hazard Elimination Program, 23 U.S.C. § 152 – which was in fact protected from discovery by § 409.

Gendler argued that though the records were used in a protected report they were derived from the same form that the WSP used as their accident report. The hardcopies of these accident reports were destroyed after being scanned, leaving DOT’s database as the only form of the accident report preserved. They were nevertheless the product of the WSP in the course of their lawful duties, unrelated to § 152, and thus subject to discovery.

The trial court granted summary judgment to Gendler and the court of appeals, en banc, affirmed. The Washington Supreme Court likewise affirmed, noting per statute that is the PRA’s intent to promote full and easy disclosure to protect the public interest, and that the PRA be liberally construed and exemptions be narrowly construed.

The Supreme Court also awarded Gendler, a lawyer, reasonable attorney fees and costs on appeal. See: Gendler v. Batiste, 171 Wash.2d 1001, 249 P.3d 181 (Wash. 2011) (Table).

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Related legal case

Gendler v. Batiste