We were last talking about getting accident reports, so I’ll continue where I left off….
The Washington State Patrol has a statutory duty to collect and compile accident reports. WSP is a public agency. See RCW 42.56.010(1). The accident reports are public records. See RCW 42.56.070. Both WSP and these accident reports are subject to the Public Records Act (see Chapter 42.56 RCW), which requires public agencies to make public records available to the public. Nevertheless, WSP, WSDOT, and a number of municipalities have refused to provide accident reports for a particular location unless the person seeking the reports signs a form promising that the records will not be used in litigation brought against any governmental entity. That promise not to sue, as a condition of accessing accident reports, has been repeatedly rejected by our trial courts. But the battle is not over.
I will discuss a brief history of the fight for accident reports in my next blog post.
Most practitioners have no idea of the difficulty accessing something as fundamental as accident reports for a given location in a highway accident case. This is true even when the accident history is essential to a proper and complete analysis.
Transportation and traffic engineers in fact determine the need for a traffic signal at an intersection on the basis of several factors, among them gaps in cross-traffic and, most importantly, accident history.
Similarly, a concentration of collisions at a given section of highway provides evidence of an unsafe condition that repeatedly produces property damage, bodily injury and even death. Again, this concentration of collisions is demonstrated through the accident history for this location.
Because the accident history for a given location is critical evidence of a dangerous condition, a number of governmental entities are trying to shield themselves from liability for their mistakes by refusing to make accident reports for their roads available to plaintiffs, even though the reports are public records.
Over the past few years, these governmental entities have tried to use a federal statute–23 U.S.C. § 409–as a basis for denying plaintiffs and their attorneys access to these traffic collision reports and related information. The federal statute provides:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, reports, surveys, schedules, lists, or data compiled or collected for the purpose of identifying, evaluating, or planning the safety enhancement of potential accident sites, hazardous roadway conditions, or railway-high crossings, pursuant to sections 130, 144, and 152, of this title or for the purpose of developing any highway safety construction improvement project, which may be implemented utilizing Federal-aid highway funds shall not be subject to discovery or admitted into evidence in a Federal or State court proceeding or considered for other purposes in any action for damages arising from any occurrence at a location mentioned or addressed in such reports, surveys, schedules, lists, or data.
23 U.S.C. § 409.
More in this in my next post…
Before its amendment in 2009, RCW 4.92.100 stated that “With respect to the content of such claims, this section shall be liberally construed so that substantial compliance will be deemed satisfactory.” Similarly, RCW 4.96.010(1) (which was not amended in 2009) provides that “The laws specifying the content for such claims shall be liberally construed so that substantial compliance therewith will be deemed satisfactory.”
Based on the language of these statutes, Washington courts required substantial compliance with the “content” requirements of RCW 4.92.100 and RCW 4.96.020. See Medina v. Public Utility Dist. No. 1, 147 Wn.2d 303, 53 P.3d 993 (2002); Reyes v. City of Renton, 121 Wn. App. 498, 86 P.3d 155 (2004). On the other hand, these cases required strict compliance with claim filing procedures on the basis that filing a claim is a condition precedent to commencing an action seeking damages from governmental entities. Medina v. Public Utility Dist. No. 1, supra; Reyes v. City of Renton, supra. As explained by the court in Reyes:
Although the claim filing statutory scheme authorizes substantial compliance with the laws specifying the content of the notice of claims, strict compliance is clearly emphasized with the filing procedures themselves. Failure to strictly comply with statutory filing requirements leads to dismissal of the action. Reyes v. City of Renton, 121 Wn. App. at 502 (citations omitted).
The application of this strict compliance rule sometimes led to harsh results. For example, in the Medina case, the court affirmed the dismissal of a personal injury case brought by a motorist against a county public utility district on the basis that the he had failed to strictly comply with the 60-day waiting period between presentation of his tort claim to the utility district and the commencement of his action in the superior court. The 2009 amendments to the claim statutes overrule the strict compliance rules cases, and now provide that “[w]ith respect to the content of claims under this section and all procedural requirements in this section, this section must be liberally construed so that substantial compliance will be deemed satisfactory.” RCW 4.92.100(3); RCW 4.96.020(5) (emphasis added). Presumably, cases addressing what constitutes substantial compliance for purposes of the claim statutes still remain good law after the 2009 amendments. For example, in Renner v. City of Marysville, 145 Wn. App. 443, 187 P.3d 283 (2008), the court held that, for purposes of the claim-filing statutes for tort claims, the substantial compliance rule has two necessary conditions: first, there must be a sufficient bona fide attempt by the claimant to comply with the law even though the attempt may be defective in some particular, and, second, the attempt at compliance must actually accomplish the statutory purpose of the claim statutes, which is to give governmental entities sufficient notice to enable them to investigate the cause and character of the injury.
After a long hiatus, I’m back in the blogging saddle. Where I last left off was a preliminary discussion regarding Claim for Damages…
Local governments and the State must make the standard form available with instructions on how the form is to be prese ted, along with the name, address, and business hours of the agent authorized to receive the claim. RXCW. 4.92.100(2); RCW 4.96.020(c).
The standardized claim form developed by the state must not require disclosure of the claimant’s social security number. It also “must not” require information that is not specified in the statute. RCW 4.95.100(2). If a local governmental entity develops its own form, the form may request additional information beyond that set forth in RCW 4.96.020(3)(a), but the local governmental entity may not deny a claim because of a claimant’s failure to provide that additional information. RCW 4.96.020(3)(c)(i). As with the state’s standardized form, claim forms developed by local governmental entities “must not” require a claimant’s social security number. RCW 4.96.020(3)(c)(ii).
Although both RCW 4.92.100 and RCW 4.96.020 require the claimant to include the amount of damages claimed, the amount of damages stated on the claim form is not admissible at trial. RCW 4.92.100(c); RCW 4.96.020(3)(f). RCW 4.92.100(2) directs that “the standard tort claim form…must not require information not specified under this section.” Despite this statutory restriction, the standard tort claim form recently developed by the state appears to violate this provision by requesting a significant amount of information beyond that required by RCW 4.92.100(1)(a). (For example, the standard form asks for the “names, addresses and telephone numbers of treating medical providers” and for “copies of all medical reports and billings”, even though the statute does not require a claimant to disclose any of this information). Because the standard tort claim form “must” only require information specified in RCW 4.92.100(1)(a), a claimant should object under RCW 4.92.100(2) to any items on the form that request information not specified under the statute.
Under RCW 4.96.020(3)(f), if a municipality develops its own tort claim form, the claimant has the option of choosing to file the standard tort claim form or the local tort claim form; “presenting either the standard tort claim form or the local government tort claim form satisfies the requirements of [the statute].” As explained above, if a claimant chooses to file the standard tort claim form against a local governmental entity, an objection should be made based on RCW 4.92.100(2) to any items on the standard tort claim form that request information not specified in RCW 4.96.020(3)(a).
Unlike the previous requirement, under the 2009 legislation, a claimant no longer is required to identify what was his or her residential address six months prior to the time the claim arose, stating instead only his or her actual residence at the time the claim arose. RCW 4.92.100(1)(a)(vii); RCW 4.96.020(3)(a)(vii). Another major change made by the 2009 amendments is that a claim may now be signed either by the claimant (who must also verify the claim), by the claimant’s attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney, by an attorney licensed to practice in Washington, or by a court-approved guardian or guardian ad litem on behalf of the claimant. RCW 4.92.100(1)(b); RCW 4.96.020(3)(b).
A claim against a local governmental entity is deemed presented when the form is delivered in person or received by the agent by regular mail, registered mail or certified mail, with return receipt requested. RCW 4.96.020(2). Similarly, for claims against the State, presentation of the claim is accomplished by service upon the agent or by registered mail. RCW 4.92.100(1).
When presenting a claim to a local governmental entity, practitioners should be careful to file the claim with the proper local agent. As indicated above, RCW 4.92.020(2) requires the governing body of each local governmental entity to appoint an agent to receive claims for damages. The identity of the agent and the address where he or she may be reached during the normal business hours of the local governmental entity by law must be recorded with the auditor of the county in which the entity is located.
The 2009 amendments also clarify that for claims against local governments, if a claim form provided by a governmental entity fails to request the information specified in the statute or incorrectly lists the agent to whom the claim is to be filed, the local government is deemed to have waived any defense related to the failure to provide that specific information or to file with the proper agent. RCW 4.96.020(3)(d).
 Additional information requested on the standard tort claim form but not required by the statute includes: the names, addresses and phone numbers of all state employees having knowledge of the incident; a list of all witnesses on liability and damages and a description of the knowledge of each; and a list of documents that support the allegations of the claim. The standard tort claim form also must be signed under penalty of perjury, which again is not required by the statute.