The City of Chattanooga has agreed to stop handing out traffic accident reports with unredacted personal information, hopefully curbing the amount of unethical solicitation that happens to victims in crashes.
"Bottom line is, no driver's license number, name or address will be provided unless it's to the person involved in the crash, their lawyer or their insurance company," said City Attorney Phil Noblett. "And they have to establish that."
Moreover, records requestors must promise not to use the information to wrongfully solicit somebody. Otherwise, they could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which carries up to 11 months and 29 days behind bars.
While some cheered the news Tuesday, others wondered what impact the action could have on public records. While traffic reports are public records, some state and federal laws say a driver's personal information should be protected. Otherwise, it's not hard for a business scofflaw to find someone's phone number in a report and contact them with lawyer referrals or medical offers.
Like many other states, Tennessee law says attorneys need to wait 30 days before they contact someone involved in a serious crash. All of this started last month when personal-injury attorney Jay Kennamer claimed a Lee Highway medical company called a crash victim on behalf of an out-of-town lawyer. He filed a lawsuit in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court, saying the problem stemmed from the police department giving out unredacted reports.
"It's a huge problem that's getting out of hand, and few people were doing anything about it," Kennamer said.
Many people involved in car accidents know of this practice. Victims of the Woodmore crash said out-of-town lawyers flocked to their homes after Nov. 21, hoping to sign them up for wrongful death lawsuits. It's not happening just in Chattanooga, though.
"I will say the problem is rampant here," said Memphis attorney Ben Daniel, who has been looking into the issue in his city. "Victims of wrecks are getting five to 10 unethical, illegal calls the next day."
After Kennamer filed his lawsuit in Chattanooga, city attorneys called the Tennessee Office of Open Records and "accepted" that some personal information shouldn't be disclosed, court records show.
The Office of Open Records declined to comment Tuesday. But the office's public policy says records custodians have to prepare redacted copies of records if certain information "is not open for public inspection."
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan, who presided over the case from Knoxville, ordered the city to make those changes Thursday. Varlan was assigned after local federal judge Travis McDonough, a former attorney for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, recused himself.
Since then, Chattanooga has added the disclosure form to its online records portal. And in theory, a person could still learn where the crash happened, how many vehicles were involved, and the date it happened, some attorneys who were familiar with the order said.
Noblett said Tuesday he wasn't sure if other surrounding cities such as Red Bank or East Ridge were participating in the order, "but I'm sure everybody will try to adopt a similar procedure so we're compliant with the state and federal law."
Elsewhere, John Kimball, a city attorney for Cleveland, Tenn., said he learned about Varlan's order when he ran into Kennamer during a scheduled deposition.
"I just sent it to our police department and said you guys need to evaluate this and talk to the Office of Open Records so they're aware," he said.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.