A late-night amendment that would keep secret the names of parties involved in traffic accidents is expected to be stripped out of a bill targeting overzealous tort lawyers who rush to crash victims' doors.
In a statement Monday, state Sen. Charles Perry acknowledged that possible legal challenges to his amendment to House Bill 2633 would likely defeat it as the bill — approved by the Senate late Sunday 19-11 — heads to a conference committee.
"It has come to light in recent hours that there have been legal challenges that have shown similar language to be unconstitutional," said the statement released by Jordan Berry, a spokesman for the Lubbock Republican.
"While the language will likely be stripped in conference committee to avoid legal challenges, Senator Perry is glad the legislature was able to start a dialogue on this crucial issue," the statement continued. "In the coming years, this topic will inevitably resurface both in the legislature and the courts as technology continues to evolve and Americans demand more protections for their quickly eroding privacy rights." When state Rep. Ana Hernandez crafted HB 2633, she said the idea was to rein in tort attorneys from harassing traffic accident victims, not to curb press access to what is now public information.
"It's an anti-barratry bill to make sure that we don't have, after an accident occurs, a fatal accident, that we don't have case runners knocking on people's door trying to sign them up for a legal case," said Hernandez, D-Houston.
But Perry's amendment, tacked on to the bill late Sunday night, would have prohibited the media from learning the names of anyone involved in a traffic accident.
Texas reporters have found serious traffic safety issues over the years by talking to all parties involved in an accident, including the 2005 Brighton Gardens bus fire during Hurricane Rita that left 24 dead, the Terrell bus crash in 2002 that claimed five lives and the Sherman bus crash that killed 17 people.
But Perry said he added the restriction because he wanted to protect traffic victims' privacy. If someone was charged with a crime related to a traffic accident, the name of the charged or arrested party would still be provided to the media, he said.
"There's no intent to ever hide an offender," Perry said on Monday. He added that families often "relive tragedies" because their names are publicized, and he's said media associations have failed to explain why a victim's name is necessary.
But he also said that he was open to more input on the importance of keeping the names public. "I'm never opposed to being educated," Perry said.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said her group has worked with Hernandez to protect continued public access to traffic accident reports.
"The House version that assured news reporter access to detailed reports went a long way toward keeping the public informed," said Shannon. "Journalists use accident reports to tell the public about current situations and ongoing dangerous traffic problems. Many times the identity of someone involved is important to the story."