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updated: 5/6/2012 7:42 AM

Libertyville settles suit over accident reports

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  • Clint Herdegen

      Clint Herdegen

 
 

Information regarding every traffic accident in Libertyville -- an average of about three a day -- is posted on a website where an individual report can be purchased for $10.

Need a report for insurance purposes? Copies also are available at the police department for $5. Whichever avenue is chosen, inquiries regarding traffic accident reports are common.

"It's probably the most frequently requested type of report," Libertyville Police Chief Clint Herdegen said. "It happens every day." But what if you just want to look?

As public records, accident reports are required to be available for viewing. But because of privacy concerns, personal information is allowed to be blacked out.

How much is obscured became an issue for Libertyville, when a law firm that wanted to see more in the reports took the village to court last November.

The matter was recently settled in a compromise that Herdegen said protects individual information and helps manage staff time while allowing the law firm access to the information in the course of its business.

"It was merely a matter of efficiency for our staff and staff time in preparing all those requests and protecting the identity of the people involved" in accidents, Herdegen said. About a half-dozen law firms routinely review accident reports.

"I think this is a reasonable compromise. We're compiling the information. Now, we'll make it available to the other firms if they request it."

Hausmann-McNally sued Libertyville in Lake County circuit court over the right to view the documents without portions omitted. The personal injury firm has offices in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Iowa and reviews accident reports to find and solicit clients.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the firm had requested to review any and all traffic crash reports investigated by Libertyville police and filed from Aug. 29 to Sept. 13, 2011, the suit stated.

According to the suit, Michael O'Connor, the police department's Freedom of Information Act officer, approved some information and denied other details.

The law firm in court documents argued O'Connor incorrectly cited Illinois' open records law in blacking out addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, driver's license numbers and vehicle registration in the reports Hausmann-McNally had wanted.

"Upon information and belief, the defendant (Libertyville) has granted other persons and corporations access to information contained within the requested traffic crash reports that were denied to plaintiff in violation of the Freedom of Information Act," wrote Jason Pohren, a Hausmann-McNally attorney who filed the suit.

"We were trying to direct the law firm to the website, and they decided they didn't want to do that," Herdegen said. "They feel like they should be entitled to view the information without paying for it."

Pohren contended Libertyville was practicing "selective disclosure" by giving unfiltered information to the website and insurance companies and shouldn't have been allowed to withhold it from the law firm.

He said insurance companies sometimes use the information to solicit settlements to lower costs associated with claims. Pohren added his firm uses accident information to educate potential customers about their options.

"We look at the information to contact the people, but what we contact them for is probably different than what people think," he said.

James Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel for the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which oversees attorneys, said there is nothing wrong with lawyers combing through public government documents in an effort to find business.

Grogan said Illinois does have advertising rules attorneys must follow.

Illinois doesn't allow lawyers to seek business in person, but they can use indirect methods, such as radio, television, newspapers, websites, direct mail, billboards and email. Grogan said direct mail and email must specifically note the message is advertising.

As of May 1, the settlement between Libertyville and Hausmann-McNally allows the firm at no charge to review twice a month all traffic crash reports generated or investigated by police.

Reports generated by the 15th of a given month must be made available within four days, and the same condition applies for reports generated by the last day of the month. Copies of requested reports will be available for $5 or the statutory fee limit. The village will not require the firm to buy crash reports from a third party that charges more, according to the settlement.

Libertyville is allowed to black out the date of birth of the drivers and passengers, as well as the driver's license numbers and telephone numbers.

Information that will not be blacked out includes: the full names of those listed in the report; the year of birth, street addresses, sex and injury codes of all drivers, passengers and others listed in the report; make, model and year of the vehicles listed; diagram of vehicles, areas of damage to vehicles and point of first impact code; details of the crash, such as the location and number of vehicles involved; the arrest name and citation numbers; and the reporting officer's diagram and narrative.

"It helps us stay efficient, (and) it helps the law firm get access to the information," Herdegen said of the settlement.

Pohren agreed the terms were fair.

"It was an amicable settlement," he said.

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