Thousands of Washington motorists are eligible for compensation from a prominent personal injury lawyer alleged to have improperly used car collision reports to solicit new clients.
U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson signed off on a preliminary class action settlement late last year requiring Craig Swapp, an attorney known for his ambitious marketing campaign and billboards in Washington, Idaho, Colorado and Utah, to pay $950,000 to people his firm contacted after purchasing in bulk collision reports from the Washington State Patrol. Attorneys for Jade Wilcox, the Spokane woman who originally brought the lawsuit in 2017, say Swapp sent notices to more than 30,000 drivers statewide in violation of a federal law protecting the privacy of motorists.
Swapp’s firm, headquartered in Utah, directed questions for comment on the settlement to James King, a Spokane-based attorney handling the defense in the class-action lawsuit. King did not return a phone message requesting comment left Tuesday. The settlement agreement does not make a conclusion about whether Swapp violated privacy law.
Jim Sweetser, one of the Spokane attorneys representing Wilcox, said the actions amounted to “electronic ambulance chasing.” Advertising such as the billboards and television spots that Swapp has used in Spokane and elsewhere amounts to attorneys throwing darts into the community, hoping one will land, Sweetser said.
Buying the reports, which the WSP charges a $10.50 fee to produce, created an uneven playing field for other injury lawyers, he argued.
“With Swapp, he was throwing a dart in the bull’s-eye every time,” Sweetser said.
Wilcox, who received two mailers from Swapp’s firm after crashes in 2015 and 2016, originally sued the WSP and its chief, alleging reports containing her name, address and other identifying information violated her privacy. But a federal judge ruled that state officials were not liable for privacy invasions because their official duties required the release of the records.
During the lawsuit, WSP was ordered to create a system that required redaction of records unless the person purchasing them promised not to use them for unlawful purposes. Chris Loftin, communications director for the WSP in Olympia, said via email the organization had made “no policy or procedural changes directly due to the lawsuit.”
Wilcox also brought action against Swapp, who argued in court filings that the information obtained was not prohibited by a 1994 federal law limiting commercial use of the data contained within the reports. That law, crafted in response to picketing and sometimes violent attacks against abortion providers whose names and addresses could be obtained through public record requests, prohibits disclosure of certain driver’s license information unless the person consents.
The law included some exemptions, including confirming that a driver possessed a commercial vehicle license or contacting people “in anticipation of litigation.”
The U.S. Supreme Court examined those exemptions in 2013, ruling in a split decision specifically that law firms could not use the information to solicit new clients. Wilcox’s lawsuit alleged that Swapp continued, from 2013 to 2017, to buy collision reports in bulk and use that information to send targeted advertisements offering his firm’s legal services.
Sweetser, Washington D.C.-based attorney R. Joseph Barton and Thomas Jarrard of Spokane, are handling the class action process. Notices were mailed earlier this month to motorists who received an advertisement after being involved in a vehicle crash to notify them they may be entitled to compensation. If the class is as large as Sweetser estimates, payouts to each driver would likely be less than $30.
Still, Sweetser said, the ruling would establish boundaries on advertising for legal services and how personal information could be used. The parties are scheduled to meet with Peterson in Spokane on April 29 to finalize the deal. Those affected have until March 9 to contact the court and opt out of the class-action lawsuit, which would allow them to file their own lawsuit.
Those with questions about the settlement agreement are asked to call (833) 513-0212, or visit swappsettlement.com.
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