State Must Provide Unredacted Accident Reports—C.A.
Gilbert Says Plaintiffs in a Wrongful Death Action Are Entitled to the Reports As Persons With a ‘Proper Interest’;
They Seek to Establish That Fatal Accident Stemmed From ‘Dangerous Condition’ of Intersection, Blaming State
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The State of California’s Department of Transportation must provide to plaintiffs in a wrongful death action copies of accident reports relating to similar mishaps at the same location without identifications of persons involved in the incidents redacted, the Court of Appeal for this district held yesterday.
The state and the cities of Moorpark and Ventura are being sued in connection with a fatal automobile accident—on the theory that there was a dangerous condition on public property—as well as the driver who allegedly caused the collision being named as a defendant.
“In wrongful death and personal injury actions arising from traffic accidents, are plaintiffs entitled to know the personal information of parties and witnesses involved in previous accidents in the same location?” Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert of Div. Six asked. “Yes, if they have a ‘proper interest,’ ” he answered, citing Vehicle Code §20012.
That section provides that the Highway Patrol or any other law enforcement agency that took an accident report must disclose “to any person who may have a proper interest therein” the entire content of such a report “including, but not limited to, the names and addresses of persons involved or injured in, or witnesses to, an accident.”
Supreme Court Dictum
A person with a “proper interest” is not limited to those involved in the accident to which the report relates, Gilbert said, pointing to dictum in the California Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in State of California ex. rel. Dept. of Transportation v. Superior Court (Hall). The plaintiff in that case, charged with five counts of murder based on an accident she caused, sought reports of other accidents at the same location, agreeing to names and other identifying information being redacted.
Chief Justice Rose Bird said in a footnote:
“Nothing in the language of section 20012 excludes persons involved in other accidents from the class of persons with a ‘proper interest’ in the reports of a given accident. The statute provides that the reports shall be disclosed ‘to any person who may have a proper interest therein, including, but not limited to, the driver or drivers involved....’ (Italics added.) It clearly contemplates that persons other than those involved in the reported accident may have a ‘proper interest’ in the reports.”
“Plaintiffs are just such ‘persons involved in other accidents’ and they may have a proper interest in the unredacted accident reports.”
Plaintiffs Meet Requirement
He went on to determine that the plaintiffs—the widow and children of a man who died as the result of a vehicular collision in Moorpark, a city in Ventura County—do, in fact, have a “proper interest” in such reports. The presiding justice explained:
“There was no dispute in the superior court that the prior traffic accidents occurred in the same location, under similar circumstances, and similarly resulted in serious injuries or death. This is sufficient to demonstrate that Plaintiffs are persons with a ‘proper interest’ in obtaining the unredacted accident reports they seek.”
The opinion denies a writ of mandate sought by the state in its challenge to a discovery order issued by Ventura Superior Court Judge Benjamin F. Coats requiring that three accident reports, provided with redactions, be disclosed fully. The state contended that the excised information is confidential.
Div. Six last Oct. 13 issued a stay of Coat’s Aug. 31 order requiring disclosure pending its action on the writ petition, lifting that stay in yesterday’s opinion.
The case is State of California, ex rel. Department of Transportation v. Superior Court of Ventura County (Paniagua), B315611.
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