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Intersection of Third Party Privacy Rights and Prior Accidents

The state of California is known to take the privacy rights of its citizens seriously, especially following the passage of the California Privacy Rights Act of 2020, also known as Proposition 24. Among other things, the Act provides California residents with the right to control the use of their personal information, including limiting the use of their sensitive personal information.

However, a recent published decision by the Court of Appeal proves that there are always exceptions to the rule, or in this case, Act.

In State of California v. Superior Court (Panaigua) (B315611, Apr. 26, 2022), the Court held that plaintiffs in wrongful death and personal injury actions arising from traffic accidents are entitled to know the personal information of parties and witnesses involved in pervious accidents in the same location.

On October 12, 2018, Decedent, Moises Panaigua, was killed when the vehicle he was driving was struck by another vehicle at the intersection of Walnut Canyon Road and Broadway Road in Moorpark, California. Plaintiffs, consisting of Decedent’s widow and minor children, sued the other driver for negligence as well as the City of Moorpark, the City of Ventura, and Caltrans for dangerous condition on public property. During discovery, Caltrans produced three traffic reports concerning accidents that occurred at or near the subject incident; however, it redacted the names and contact information of the parties involved and the witnesses. Undeterred, Plaintiffs sought additional discovery requests seeking the information that was redacted, which Caltrans objected to. Plaintiffs filed a motion to compel further responses on the ground that they have a “proper interest” under California Vehicle Code section 20012. The section provides in pertinent part:

All required accident reports, and supplemental reports, shall be without prejudice to the individual so reporting and shall be for the confidential use of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of the California Highway Patrol, except that the Department of the California Highway Patrol or the law enforcement agency to whom the accident was reported shall disclose the entire contents of the reports, including, but not limited to, the names and addresses of persons involved or injured in, or witnesses to, an accident, the registration numbers and descriptions of vehicles involved, the date, time and location of an accident, all diagrams, statements of the drivers involved or occupants injured in the accident and the statements of all witnesses, to any person who may have a proper interest therein, including, but not limited to, the driver or drivers involved, or the guardian or conservator thereof, the parent of a minor driver, the authorized representative of a driver, or to any named person injured therein, the owners of vehicles or property damaged thereby, persons who may incur civil liability, including liability based upon a breach of warranty arising out of the accident, and any attorney who declares under penalty of perjury that he or she represents any of the above persons.

The trial court granted the motion to compel, finding that the prior reports were not the type of report contemplated by provisions of the Vehicle Code and therefore, the confidentiality provisions of section 20012 did not apply. Caltrans filed a petition for writ of mandate.

The Court of Appeal denied the petition. While it agreed with the trial court’s order, it disagreed with the trial court’s reasoning. The Court of Appeal relied heavily on a case decided 37 years ago (before seat belts were required in California and when only the Department of Defense and Al Gore knew what the internet was), State of California ex. Rel. Dept. of Transportation v. Superior Court (Hall) (1985) 37 Cal.3d 847. The Court of Appeal cited to Hall’s reasoning that the inclusion of “including, but not limited to” in Vehicle Code section 20012 “ ‘clearly contemplates that persons other than those involved in the reported accident may have a “proper interest” in the reports.’ ” The Court of Appeal further reasoned that Plaintiffs clearly are “persons involved in other accidents” and therefore, had a “proper interest” in the unredacted reports. The Court of Appeal conveniently ignored the fact that the rest of the statute that it failed to cite provided a string of examples of those with a “proper interest” which basically involved individuals involved in the accidents and to whom would be ultimately liable for the accidents.

Unfortunately, there is no indication in the opinion whether there were any safeguards put in place prior to the release of the unredacted records such as a confidentiality order. This opinion could lead to some unfortunate consequences such as a chilling effect on reporting accidents or providing “ambulance chasers” with another way of trying to find new clients.