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Protecting auto accident victims’ personal info from ambulance chasers

Such information must be covered by the Michigan FOIA Privacy Exemption

protecting accident victims personal information

This week, I’ve been discussing my “5-Point Plan to Protect Auto Accident Victims from Ambulance Chasing Lawyers.” There’s currently proposed legislation (HB 4770-71) that’s aimed at stopping unethical injury lawyers from sending mail solicitation packages to crash victims after looking up their personal information and accident police reports.

But my plan takes this great piece of legislation several steps further. The latest step:

Auto accident victims’ personal information, which is contained in motor vehicle accident reports (including, but not limited to, UD-10s) should be protected from disclosure under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) privacy exemption:

“A public body may exempt from disclosure as a public record under [the Michigan Freedom of Information Act] … [i]nformation of a personal nature if public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.” (MCL 15.243(1)(a))

As such, when complying with a FOIA request for motor vehicle accident reports, the Michigan State Police and all other law enforcement agencies (that report on Michigan motor vehicle accidents) should invoke the FOIA privacy exemption as justification for redacting or otherwise withholding auto accident victims’ personal information.

Using the Michigan FOIA privacy exemption in this way to protect the privacy of auto accident victims’ personal information is consistent with existing Michigan case law:

  • In Baker v. City of Westland (Michigan Court of Appeals, 2001), the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the Michigan FOIA privacy exemption shielded auto accident victims’ personal information (names, addresses, and injury details) from disclosure. Being involved as well as being injured in an auto accident are “intimate detail[s] of a person’s private life,” and, thus, the information was of a “personal nature.” Additionally, disclosure amounted to an “unwarranted invasion” of the accident victims’ privacy because the information was “about private citizens” and it was “unrelated to any inquiry regarding the workings of the government.”
  • In Midwestern Audit Services, Inc., v. Department of State Police (Michigan Court of Appeals, 2000), the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that “unredacted copies of all UD-10 traffic crash reports for a period of three years” were not subject to disclosure under the Michigan FOIA privacy exemption. “[T]he disclosures sought relate only to the private lives of private citizens who happen to have been involved in a motor vehicle accident. The information sought is relatively extensive and includes intimate details of individual’s private lives,” the court concluded. Plus, the judges noted, “we see no manner in which disclosure of the information sought is relevant to serve the core purpose of the FOIA, which is contributing significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of government.”

Next week, my blog series will wrap up with a post on the dire need to prohibit direct mail solicitation of auto accident victims in Michigan.

Related information:

Guest blog from Rep. Joe Graves on ambulance chasing lawyers

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Blog Author Steven M. Gursten
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