By Mike Baker Associated Press
OLYMPIA — Accident reports compiled by troopers and maintained in a state database should be treated as public records available by request, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Justices said in their 7-2 decision that the Washington State Patrol improperly withheld files from a person seeking location-specific records. He was asked to sign a document vowing that he would not use the records to sue the state.
The state had argued that a federal statute shielded the records because the documents were located in an electronic database that the Department of Transportation utilized for a federal hazard elimination program.
“Until 2003, citizens have been able to request and receive copies of accident reports specific to a location,” Justice Mary E. Fairhurst said in the majority opinion. “The state now asks us to place Washington citizens in a worse position than they would have been before (the federal statute). The state’s argument is rejected.”
The court also awarded plaintiff Michael Gendler an unspecified amount of attorney’s fees for the case. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna says attorneys are reviewing the decision to see what options they might have.
Gendler was paralyzed from the neck down in an October 2007 bike crash after his tire got caught in a grate on the Montlake Bridge in Seattle. He sued the state, claiming a gap between steel panels was more than a half-inch wide — enough to catch a bike tire.
The state Department of Transportation agreed to pay $8 million to settle his lawsuit.
Thursday’s ruling does not specify why Gendler wanted the accident records.
Justice James M. Johnson wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing that the evidence suggests the records are compiled for the federal hazard elimination program and that federal law shields records gathered for that purpose.
“Without further evidence that the State was maintaining these records to comply with state rather than federal highway law standards, the federal privilege from discovery should control the outcome of this case,” he wrote.