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It Was a Good Deed Never Forgiven

Lives were shattered after DMV mistakenly revealed the woman who reported elderly friend's poor driving.

August 10, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

The two women were like mother and daughter.

For 35 years, Rosemary Pool Engle and Elizabeth Kovach had seen each other through divorces, weddings and retirement. So it was agonizing for Engle to report her 83-year-old friend to the Department of Motor Vehicles as an unsafe driver.

One small comfort was that Kovach would never know who turned her in. Engle was assured her report would remain confidential.

Instead, the DMV sent Kovach a copy of the complaint, complete with the name of her accuser. They took away her license, but also ended a long and deep friendship.

Weeks later, when Kovach was in a hospital bed dying of congestive heart failure, unable to speak, she would pull back from her friend's arms.

"She hated me," Engle said.

"In the end I betrayed her," Engle said. "If I had to do it over again, I guess I'd let her drive. Horrible, because I went to the professionals for advice and this is what the professionals did."

A broken-hearted Engle sued the DMV in February 1998, saying the agency violated the law that guaranteed her confidentiality. Four months ago, she settled for $125,000, receiving $31,000 after expenses and attorney fees. The case forced the DMV to change its procedures to ensure names are kept secret.

State officials describe the Engle case as a mistake, and say it is the only one the agency knows of in which a tipster's confidentiality was violated.

"You can have any of a myriad number of rules in place, but as long as humans were involved, there can be errors," said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which represented the DMV in the lawsuit.

Californians were reminded last month how high the stakes can be after an 86-year-old man sped through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market and killed 10 people.

Since that accident, agency employees have seen an increase in the number of phone calls from people about reporting family members' poor driving, said DMV spokesman Armando Botello. In 2002, the agency received 86,000 bad-driver referrals from law enforcement officers, doctors and family members, resulting in the revocation of 42,000 licenses.

Ken Katz, associate state coordinator for AARP in Orange County, said confidentiality is an important issue to people worried about friends and relatives. "People ask me: Do they tell the person being called in who reported them?" he said.

Until recently, the DMV made little effort to guard the confidentiality of bad-driver complaints, which was guaranteed by a law passed more than 20 years before the Engle case. In response to Engle's lawsuit, the DMV instituted procedures so that information to be kept secret was put in an envelope marked "confidential," agency director Steve Gourley said.

Last year, the agency created a form designed for bad-driver complaints that includes a box that can be checked to make the report confidential.

But Richard Vilkin, Engle's attorney, is skeptical that the agency has tried hard to protect the confidentiality of bad-driver complaints. He said that in 2001, he asked the DMV for documents showing safeguards the agency had implemented, and got little in return.

"They produced nothing that would show they had added a procedure for treating confidential information in any special way," he said. "My impression through their conduct of this case was that they never took the issue seriously."

Engle and Kovach, who both lived in the San Fernando Valley, met in the early 1960s at a landscaping class at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. Kovach, about 20 years older than Engle, had been married and divorced. She worked as an adjudicator for the state Department of Human Resources. She had no children; her only family was a brother in Cleveland, from whom she was estranged.

Engle had her own family problems, including a fractious relationship with her mother, who refused contact with her.

Kovach, known as Elsie, quickly entered the fold of the Engle family -- Rosemary, her husband and three daughters. Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays and camping trips, Kovach was there.

"She probably spent more time with us than a grandmother or an aunt would," said Jennifer Pool, 38, Engle's daughter.

When Engle's husband, an engineer, was transferred to Orange County in 1972, the family moved to Costa Mesa. The marriage broke up, and Kovach was so distressed by her friends' split that she sought counseling herself.

Engle got a job traveling, selling art supplies. Her work took her to Central California, and three times a week she would stay overnight at Kovach's house in the Valley. The relationship was so close that Kovach made the younger woman her trustee for financial and medical affairs.

In late 1989, Kovach retired and moved to Vista, in San Diego County. As the years passed, Kovach's health -- and her driving skills -- deteriorated. She took a fall, and her back was never the same. She had heart disease and suffered from depression. After a knee replacement didn't go well, she had to use a cane or walker.

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