Pierce County v. Guillen, 537 U.S. 129 (2003)

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PIERCE COUNTY, WASHINGTON v. GUILLEN, legal guardian of GUILLEN et al., MINORS, et al.

certiorari to the supreme court of washington

No. 01-1229. Argued November 4, 2002—Decided January 14, 2003

As part of its effort to improve the safety of the Nation's highways, Congress adopted the Hazard Elimination Program (Program), 23 U. S. C. 152, which provides state and local governments with funding to improve the most dangerous sections of their roads. To be eligible for such funding, a government must undertake a thorough evaluation of its public roads. Because of States' concerns that the absence of confidentiality with respect to 152's compliance measures would increase the liability risk for accidents that took place at hazardous locations before improvements could be made and Department of Transportation's concerns that the States' reluctance to be forthcoming in their data collection efforts undermined the Program's effectiveness, Congress, in 1987, adopted 409, which provided that materials "compiled" for 152 purposes "shall not be admitted into evidence in Federal or State court." Responding to subsequent court decisions holding that 409 did not apply to pretrial discovery and protected only materials that an agency actually generated for 152 purposes, not documents that the agency collected to prepare its 152 application, Congress expressly made the statute applicable to pretrial discovery in 1991 and added the phrase "or collected" after the word "compiled" in 1995. Several months before respondent Ignacio Guillen's wife died in an automobile accident at an intersection in petitioner county, petitioner's 152 funding request for the intersection was denied. Its second request was approved three weeks after the accident. Petitioner declined to provide respondents' counsel with information about accidents at the intersection, asserting that any relevant information was protected by 409. Respondents then filed an action in Washington state court, alleging that petitioner's refusal to disclose violated the State's Public Disclosure Act (PDA). The trial court granted respondents summary judgment, ordering petitioner to disclose five documents and pay respondents' attorney's fees. While petitioner's appeal was pending, respondents filed another state-court action, alleging that petitioner had been negligent in failing to install proper traffic controls at the intersection. Petitioner refused to comply with their discovery request for information regarding accidents at the intersection, and respondents


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