Online accident reports: Fair game for attorneys, or ambulance chasing?

Brandi Thorne was driving through a Pasco intersection one night in December when a minivan ran a red light and turned in front of her SUV.

More than three months later, her husband, Dillon Thorne, collided with a car in the same SUV when he failed to yield on a Kennewick roadway.

Neither of them complained of injuries to police. Yet within days of each crash, the couple received calls asking if they had any aches or pains or wanted to schedule an appointment with a healthcare specialist.

The Thornes pressed the callers to find out where they were getting their information.

What the Pasco couple discovered is part of a growing trend of professionals culling online accident reports for potential clients. The reports are public records, and a version of the practice has been around for years.

But some believe this recent tactic constitutes modern-day ambulance chasing.

The practice is not illegal or unethical. However, lawyers and other professionals can’t solicit a client if the person already has asked not to be contacted, and a chiropractor’s advertising should not exploit a patient’s vulnerability.

“They’re trying to pass it off as a well-being check, and they’re calling and asking how you’re doing,” Dillon Thorne said.

“After they’ve asked you a couple simple questions, they say sometimes after accidents we find two, three, four weeks down the road we get these pains and aches and don’t realize they’re from the accident,” he added.

In Brandi Thorne’s case, she thought the first call was from her insurance company because it showed a Seattle area code.

Then she discovered it was nationwide company that was going to schedule an appointment for her with an “auto accident specialist” — either a chiropractor or a physician — to check her out.

Dillon Thorne, who was the at-fault driver, said the victim in his collision did not have car insurance and only wanted him to pay for a busted headlight.

He considers himself a smart person and often knows when someone is trying to pull one over on him. However, he worries about a company convincing the other driver to pursue a personal injury claim for issues that weren’t there before.

“I think it’s a high-tech ambulance chaser tactic. They must just pay people to sit here and mine this stuff,” Thorne said.

“It would be one thing if you had to file some sort of formal request to get the information, even if it was free. But just to go on here and literally go report by report by report and read through all of them, it’s disconcerting I would say, at the least.”

State rules say nothing unethical

A couple of Tri-City lawyers have been sending out letters to prospective clients, noting that public records show they were involved in a vehicle accident.

The letters start off by wishing the recipient a speedy recovery, before offering a free legal consultation. They recognize that many people resolve their claims through insurance companies, but point out “many cases benefit greatly by having legal representation.”

The attorneys say they know how to help, including seeing doctors, getting vehicle repairs, paying medical bills and getting a fair settlement. One of the letters encourages the recipient to call with questions, or to get a free copy of the accident report.

Yet, those accident reports already are free to the public — that is where the lawyers gleaned the information in the first place.

The Herald saw letters from Kennewick lawyers Spencer Fielding and Brandon Ritchie, though there may be others making similar solicitations. Fielding and Ritchie did not return Herald calls about the practice.

Debra Carnes, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Bar Association, told the Herald the attorneys pulling this information from public records are in compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.

“While it may appear questionable to some, there is nothing false, misleading or unethical based on the rules,” she wrote in an email.

The Pasco Police Department has been posting accident reports on its website for about four years, and the Kennewick Police Department started doing it last year.

The electronic “police traffic collision report” falls under the Washington Public Records Act and therefore cannot be partially blacked out, unless a party requests anonymity — or a “do not post/publish” — when an officer is taking the report at the scene.

Information on the report includes everything from the person’s phone and address, birthdate and insurance policy to specifics of the crash with a diagram. Only the driver’s license number can later be removed.

Reports are ‘service to the citizen’

While it may seem like a lot of personal data is now free game for the public, that information has long been available to people who file records requests.

“The majority of our requests are just people who want to know about other people,” said Lezlie Arntz, records bureau supervisor for the Kennewick Police Department.

Her office receives on average 250 requests each month, requiring the equivalent of 1.75 full-time employees to process. And often, she said, they never get picked up, explaining the five banker boxes filled with unclaimed requests.

Before these reports went online, Kennewick police would get a request from a Western Washington lawyer every two weeks wanting all accident reports created from the prior two weeks, Arntz said. He would request the first page only and wanted it sent electronically so he did not have to pay.

People who abused the law, sending massive public records requests, triggered Kennewick’s decision to follow other agencies across the state and go online with the disclosable information, Arntz said.

Fulfilling those requests took time away from the actual victims who needed their reports for insurance purposes, she said. Now the reports are uploaded to the city’s website within a few days. Before, a victim would have to wait up to two weeks.

“This is a service to the citizen. All this information is free to the public anyway, we’re just putting it in one spot so people can get it in a quicker manner,” she said.

“It has saved us and the taxpayers quite a bit of money to not have to pay, number one, for that accident report, and for our time to process those records.”

The agency has not had any complaints since the reports went online, Arntz said.

“In fact, we’ve had more ‘Thank yous’ to being able to get that information so quickly and their claims aren’t tied up so they’re able to get their vehicle fixed,” she said.

‘Demeans the profession’

Kennewick attorney Allen Brecke has had a number of people contact him after receiving solicitation letters from lawyers they don’t know, he said.

Brecke, who has focused his practice on personal injury cases since 1983, started advertising on TV in May 1984 and still does five-second spots that offer a free review of a potential injury case.

He asks people to bring in pertinent medical information, the facts of the crash and any photographs to help him determine if the case has any value.

Brecke said he will never directly solicit a person he does not know. He called that version of ambulance chasing a statewide problem with a strong motivation for profit and gain.

“It just gives the profession a bad name,” he said.

People should “be aware and do their homework, because it’s a decision that can be the wrong one and to get involved will be costly,” he said.

He recommends the website for researching a lawyer’s ratings and reputation, especially if they’ve solicited you and want to represent your injury claim.

“I think it demeans the profession and I’m ashamed of it,” Brecke said. “I regret that it’s going on, really. I have a lot more appreciation for the nobility and the calling than I think some of these folks who are doing the solicitation and don’t have the experience to handle what they say they can do.”