By Tim Rowland
A Supreme Court judge has ruled that the Olympic Regional Development Authority must provide detailed accident records to Adirondack Explorer, which had been pursuing a story on the safety of the state’s winter sporting venues at Mt. Van Hoevenberg.
Explorer attorney Jeff Mans said the magazine was “happy with the decision, substantively,” but disappointed the judge declined to impose legal costs on ORDA.
ORDA released a statement saying that the organization “is concerned with protecting the privacy of the athletes and members of the public who utilize ORDA facilities, and who may receive medical care in connection with those activities.”
ORDA is reviewing the decision, and has not decided whether it will appeal, the statement indicated.
Under state Freedom of Information Law, investigative reporter James Odato requested accident reports from January 2015 to July 4, 2020, and from calendar year 2004 for athletic competitions at Mt. Van Hoevenberg’s Olympic complex.
The Olympic complex features a track for sliding sports that include bobsled, skeleton and luge. In response to the FOIL request, ORDA released reports that were almost entirely redacted. After ORDA denied an appeal to provide more substance, the Explorer sued.
These reports were of public interest, said Explorer Publisher Tracy Ormsbee, and in line with responsible journalism. “It’s our job as part of the press to let people know about injuries at public facilities,” she said. “We were never interested in who the people were, what hospital they were taken to or any underlying medical condition.”
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In response to the request for public records, ORDA provided about 200 reports that were, according to the court, “a near blanket redaction,” save for the location, date and time the accidents occurred.
In blacking out details about the nature and extent of the injuries, ORDA argued that the reports constituted “medical history,” and to release this data would amount to a violation of federal HIPAA law protecting patient right to privacy, particularly for elite athletes who might be prone to identification based on their injuries.
But Essex County Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer called that argument “speculative and unsupported by any factual evidence.” Medical privacy law requires that only basic identifiers such as names, birth dates, driver licenses and such be scrubbed from accident reports before they can be released to the public.
The court indicated it was far-fetched to think a spectator might recall the name of an athlete and the date of an accident and then cross-reference that information with medical reports. “Therefore, disclosure of those reports after redaction of those (basic) identifiers would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy sufficient to justify exemption from disclosure under FOIL,” Meyer wrote.
Mans said based on well-established law there was “no reasonable basis” for ORDA to withhold the substance of the reports.
“They did not want to divulge the information, that’s the bottom line,” Mans said. The Explorer “stood up and did not accept this unlawful denial of access.”
The court decision comes at a time when Gov. Kathy Hochul has made better transparency in state offices a goal. Her administration recently instructed state agencies to submit plans for putting more information before the eyes of the public. That includes speeding up FOIL records requests. which under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo were often buried for long stretches of time or denied outright.
“We are so encouraged by her call for transparency,” Ormsbee said. “We’re still waiting to hear back on some requests from reporters who no longer work here.”