Federal lawsuit throws into question 30-day rule meant to protect victims

Federal lawsuit throws into question 30-day rule meant to protect victims

September 19th, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

When Dorothy Woodward got into a car wreck last month, the Chattanooga Police Department did what it always does: An officer took her driver's license number, home address, phone number and other information, then made an incident report.

Days later, though, Woodward received a pair of calls from a medical company on Lee Highway offering to arrange a check-up and refer her to an attorney in Memphis.

It didn't seem strange to attorney Jay Kennamer, who filed a lawsuit Thursday in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court against the city and the medical company and its representative detailing Woodward's experience.

Kennamer said city officials know of at least five groups that regularly scroll through the police department's crash reports, use that information to contact people with possible civil claims and then connect them with personal injury attorneys.

The behavior skirts an ethical rule that calls on attorneys to wait 30 days before contacting someone involved in a serious automotive wreck, Kennamer said. But of more concern, he said, is that city officials allow these groups to operate when they're required by federal law to protect residents' motor vehicle information. Kennamer wants a court order that makes the city redact personal information from such reports and said he plans to add more plaintiffs to his lawsuit.

"You can go down to the Amnicola Highway station any morning and there's probably a person sitting in their lobby thumbing through police reports," he said.

City Attorney Phil Noblett, who likely will represent the city, could not be reached for comment. The other defendants, Riverview Medical Services Co. and Lakendra Porter, also could not be reached.

Riverview is listed as a nurse practitioner on Lee Highway and appears to be owned by a woman named Kayla Fenton with a Canadian phone number, according to a website that tracks registered health care providers in the United States. When a Times Free Press reporter tried to contact Fenton multiple times, each call went straight to a full voicemail box.

But in a city where an out-of-town law firm now is fighting allegations it improperly solicited family members of the Woodmore Elementary crash victims, Kennamer's lawsuit raises the question: What rules protect an individual's information from potential scams when it's a public report, and are they easy to circumvent?

Kennamer cited the Driver's Privacy and Protection Act in his suit, a federal law that allows the release of some motor-vehicle details "so long as personal information is not published, redisclosed, or used to contact individuals."

In accordance with federal and state laws, the county does not release people's title and tag information.

"If an individual walked in and say, had your tag number and wanted your information from it, we couldn't release it," Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said. "It's just not available."

A crash report, however, is a different story.

Anybody can request a copy from law enforcement if they know your name, date or location. You can buy them online, too. They're public records.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokesman Matt Lea said officials redact key pieces of information first, like Social Security and driver's license numbers, as well as a person's date of birth. Kennamer claims the police department doesn't have similar protections or make people disclose that they won't use the information to solicit someone.

Other local attorneys say the 30-day contact rule is weak and that today's advertising schemes stem from a 1977 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Attorney Jerry Summers, who recently started a blog about legal advertising and has practiced in the area for 50 years, said Chattanooga media has been overrun "with the never-ending competition for the right to represent the injured, maimed or deceased in any type of accident."

He pointed to then-Justice Harry Blackmun's decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, a 1977 case in which the Supreme Court upheld the rights of attorneys to advertise in newspapers and other media.

"It is entirely possible that advertising will serve to reduce, not advance the cost of legal services to the consumer, and may well aid new attorneys in entering the market," Blackmun wrote.

Summers said he wished that were true.

"It has no assurance that you're getting quality medical care or quality legal care," he said of getting directed to a random attorney. "There's so much deception."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.