The D.C. Council is scheduled to take up the controversial no-fault auto insurance legislation Tuesday for the third time in six weeks, but opponents of the measure hope to put off a decision by setting up a task force to study the issue for at least three months.
No-fault supporters are preparing several amendments to strengthen a bill that was given preliminary approval two weeks ago. They have charged that delay effectively would kill the legislation.
The task force idea, which could delay a decision until after the September council and mayoral primary elections, is the latest concept to emerge in the council's protracted fight over no-fault.
Two stormy sessions have produced different bills, each of which has been criticized by both supporters and opponents of no-fault. The council has been almost evenly divided on the issue, with David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) and H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) emerging as swing votes.
"I left the last session with the biggest headache," said council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), who has led the effort for immediate adoption of a no-fault measure.
A bill drafted by Winter and William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) was approved by the council two weeks ago, but several amendments were added which, no-fault supporters claimed, effectively gutted the measure.
The concept behind no-fault is that in the case of an accident, a person who is injured receives compensation for medical costs from his own insurance firm. Without no-fault, the injured party must collect from the other party's insurance company, and often must resort to a lawsuit.
Winter said she held several meetings last week with representatives of the insurance industry, who have helped lead the lobbying effort for no-fault, and with trial lawyers, who have strenuously opposed no-fault.
The lawyers have pressed hard for a delay, Winter said yesterday. Many of the lawyers represent accident victims in lawsuits, and they have argued that no-fault infringes on the individual's right to take his case to court.
Winter said the insurance officials -- who say no-fault is the best way to ensure low insurance premiums -- told her they would reluctantly agree to the delay if it becomes necessary, only because they have so many objections to the bill as it was given preliminary approval two weeks ago.
No-fault supporters are particularly critical of a provision that would allow lawsuits for "pain and suffering" whenever a victim's medical costs exceed $2,500. That level, supporters of no-fault say, is too low.
Winter says she is now set to propose raising that limit to $5,000. Insurance officials have said that change would significantly reduce insurance premiums by lessening the likelihood of lawsuits and possible fraudulent efforts to raise medical costs to the threshold level. The trial lawyers, however, oppose the change.
Winter said she will propose other new amendments as well -- including the establishment of a special commission to monitor insurance rates under no-fault -- and said she hopes to have the support of a majority of council members before Tuesday's session.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said she also hopes to assemble a majority of council members in support of her idea to set up a 90-day task force.
She said the council needs a chance to study the issue "in an atmosphere that is not politically charged.
"The intense lobbying really created a public hysteria," said Jarvis, referring to the pressure from the trial lawyers and an unprecedented lobbying effort by the Government Employees Insurance Co., which sent out 213,610 letters in support of no-fault.
"There has got to be some rapprochement," Jarvis said. Opponents charged that her plan is just an attempt to put off a final decision until after the Sept. 14 primary elections.
"It's not a matter of putting the issue off," Jarvis said Friday. "The council needs to be much more informed. If you take it away from the political process, hopefully a better piece of legislation will result. It doesn't look like we're going to come up with anything that's acceptable to both sides now."
Under Jarvis' plan, a task force of council representatives, industry and consumer groups would make an initial report on the proposed legislation on Sept. 10, four days before the city's primary elections. A final report would not be released until December.
Winter said yesterday that the delay effectively would kill the legislation because it would be caught up in the council's Christmas recess and then would have to be reintroduced in January.
"We would have to start all over; that would be a total disaster," Winter said.
In the no-fault controversy, the council is trying to fashion legislation which, for the first time, would require motorists in the city to have auto insurance. Currently, city officials estimate that 40 percent of the 250,000 registered vehicles here are owned by uninsured motorists.