The D.C. Council gave preliminary approval yesterday to a revised no-fault auto insurance bill that doubled to $5,000 the amount of medical costs an injured person would have to incur before being allowed to sue for nonmedical "pain and suffering."
The legislation also would require all motorists registered in the city to carry insurance.
The controversial measure passed 11 to 2 after the council defeated a motion to table, or delay, the bill by an 8-to-5 vote and then deleted amendments that no-fault supporters had said crippled the bill when it was first voted on two weeks ago.
For supporters of no-fault, the key vote on the legislation itself came on an amendment that raised the so-called "threshold" from $2,500 -- the figure approved two weeks ago -- to $5,000.
That "threshold" was viewed by no-fault supporters as a crucial part of the bill, since they said it would lower the cost of insurance premiums, reduce the number of expensive lawsuits for "pain and suffering" and make it harder for unscrupulous persons to inflate medical bills in order to sue for extra damages.
During its day-long session, the council also reversed itself and gave initial approval to a bill to ban all sales of drug paraphernalia in the city instead of a partial ban that was voted May 25.
In addition, the council tentatively approved a bill revising the city's drunk-driving laws and a separate measure that would allow credit card sales at liquor stores as part of a series of changes in the city's alcoholic beverage laws.
The no-fault insurance bill, which has embroiled the council in protracted debate for several sessions, passed yesterday with little of the acrimonious exchanges that had marked previous sessions.
Under the measure, each motorist would be required to carry insurance that would pay up to $100,000 of medical costs, $24,000 in lost wages and $2,000 in death benefits without determining which driver causes, or was "at fault," in an accident. In addition, drivers would have to carry regular liability protection to cover accidents that occur outside the District of Columbia.
Insurance officials said they would have to study the bill but that the average good driver probably would have to pay about $200 annually under the system approved yesterday.
About 40 percent of the city's 250,000 registered vehicles are owned by motorists who are uninsured.
The no-fault measure was opposed by the city's trial lawyer association, which mounted a strenuous lobbying campaign against the bill, arguing that the bill unfairly restricted an injured person's right to sue for damages. The association vowed to continue its opposition when the bill comes up for final council action, scheduled for June 22.
The major procedural vote on no-fault came when the council turned down the tabling effort offered by council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who wanted to establish a task force to study the issue until late this year. That move was opposed by no-fault supporters as an unncessary delay.
Voting against the tabling motion were Council Chairman Arrington Dixon and members Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) and H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7).
Crawford and Clarke provided the key swing votes on the issue since they had sided with opponents of no-fault on key amendments two weeks ago.
At one point in the debate, council member John Ray (D-At Large) said he had wondered why The Washington Post had printed numerous editorials endorsing no-fault. Ray suggested the reason could be that Warren E. Buffett was a major stockholder in the Geico corporation -- the city's largest auto insurer and the leader of a major lobbying effort for no-fault -- and also holds a large amount of Post stock and sits on its board of directors.
Later yesterday, Meg Greenfield, editor of the editorial page, called Ray's suggestion preposterous. She said that a check of The Post's editorials showed the paper had supported no-fault at least as early as 1970, four years before Buffett joined the paper's board of directors. Greenfield said the editorial staff had never discussed the issue with Buffett.
The drug paraphernalia ban was approved after the council received a barrage of last-minute lobbying against an earlier bill that would have banned sales of paraphernalia to minors and prohibited sales by street vendors.
The major provision of the drunk driving measure cuts in half the blood-alcohol level at which a person is considered legally drunk, from .10 to .05 percent. The bill also establishes new penalties to encourage prosecution and convictions of persons arrested for drunk driving.
The alcoholic beverage control revisions would allow liquor stores to remain open longer, accept credit cards and advertise prices in store windows. It also makes substantial changes in the provisions dealing with credit arrangements between wholesalers and retailers that could affect the price of all alcoholic beverages in the city.