Recently, a young woman who was struck and suffered serious injuries in a crosswalk filed an appeal in a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles (the City). According to the court’s opinion, the high school sophomore was hit by a car in a crosswalk while she was walking to school. The young woman filed a personal injury lawsuit against the City, arguing that the intersection was a dangerous condition. She contended that the City was in the process of installing a traffic signal at the scene of the accident, but it was untimely and incomplete when the accident occurred.
During discovery, the plaintiff obtained information about a previous fatal pedestrian accident at the same intersection. Discovery included documents related to the City’s investigation of the earlier incident, including their application for federal funds through the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP). In response, the defendant objected, arguing that the intersection did not constitute a dangerous condition and moved to preclude the admission of the HSIP application documents under title 23 of the U.S. Code section 409 (section 409). On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the privilege under section 409 did not apply to the HSIP application, and even if it did, the defendant waived their privilege.
Congress enacted the Hazard Elimination Program to encourage the federal government and states to work in concert to improve road conditions and safety. States that apply for funds through this program must engage in a thorough evaluation of its roads and present the entity with its findings. In response to confidentiality issues, Congress enacted section 409, which precludes admission of these documents into evidence, for any action for damages. In this case, the plaintiff conceded that the documents she presented were a part of the HSIP application, but claimed that the privilege does not apply because it was not a “report, survey, schedule, list or data,” within the meaning of section 409. The court found that the application was exactly the type of document section 409 was designed to protect, and the court’s search for truth in a civil matter does not outweigh Congress’ intent to protect those that are applying for federal funds.