Willis Price and Kevin Kerr were involved in automobile accidents in Memphis. Neither was happy about it. Their anger increased when, within days, they started receiving sales pitches to contact attorneys — possibly to exploit their mishap with bogus injury treatment and fraudulent insurance billings.
The attorneys found their names in local police crash reports. Price and Kerr are the lead plaintiffs in a federal class action lawsuit filed in Tennessee. The suit seeks to quash the sale of police crash reports by the City of Memphis.
Their suit may spur similar filings across the nation, whether or not it succeeds. Personal privacy rights are moving to center stage in today’s cyber-driven world. For years, local police departments and other government agencies have supplemented their budgets by selling the personal information of crash victims as public records. Report sales can earn quite a bit of money for cash-strapped departments and agencies. It’s a revenue stream they want to protect.
But who are the “customers” of the report sales? The U.S. Supreme Court authorized attorneys to advertise for clients in 1974. America’s “personal injury machine” has exploded since then. Shady lawyers, chiropractors, body shops and others use the crash reports to identify crash victims. They hound the victims. The goal is to lure them into getting unneeded — and sometimes medically dangerous — injury “treatment.” Auto insurers are billed for inflated claims. The lawyers may falsely sue insurers to extract yet more money.
It’s a booming scam industry in many states around the U.S.
Access to public records is a crucial to our democratic governance. Yet does the mere fact that you’re involved in a collision give someone the right to access your home address, phone number, drivers license number, date of birth, email and other sensitive personal information?
For all practical purposes, local law enforcement is feeding personal-injury mills by offering up your sensitive information for sale and profit. Do we need more state laws limiting this practice? Or do existing laws simply need better enforcement? Or both?
President Clinton signed into law the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. It allows disclosure of personal information only with the person’s express consent. However, the law has many loopholes. Many states (including Tennessee) have similar privacy laws, though enforcement is minimal at best.
The Coalition supports reasonable limits such as a 30-day blackout period for outsider access to crash reports. It’s an uphill battle, however. Budget-minded pushback by state agencies often stalls state legislation limiting access to the reports. Sadly, budget concerns also trump needed policy debates over the privacy of crash victims.
We need better privacy debates, and stronger state laws. How much of our personal information do we want released by “accident”?
Matthew Smith is associate director of government affairs for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.