The D.C. City Council, ending months of acrimonious debate and unprecedented lobbying, gave final approval yesterday to landmark legislation mandating no-fault auto insurance for District drivers.
The bill was approved on an 8-to-4 roll call vote with one abstention after more than five hours of parliamentary wrangling in which no-fault supporters beat back a series of attempts by opponents to force still another vote on the issue in two weeks.
The bill would require owners of vehicles registered in the District--about 40 percent of whom are now uninsured--to buy auto insurance that would pay for personal injury claims up to $100,000 no matter which driver was at fault in an accident. It would also provide up to $24,000 in lost wages and $2,000 in death benefits.
Under its most controversial provision, a person could sue for nonmedical pain and suffering only when he had at least $5,000 in medical bills or suffered significant disfigurement, disability or death.
Passage of the bill was a defeat for the Association of Plaintiff Trial Attorneys, whose members had strenuously opposed it for more than a year and conducted an 11th-hour, $30,000 radio-TV campaign in an effort to delay it after tentative approval two weeks ago by the council.
Supporters of the bill, including dozens of consumer groups and the Government Employees Insurance Co. (Geico), which launched an unprecedented mailing campaign for it, were jubilant.
The bill now goes to Mayor Marion Barry, who is expected to sign it. It must then lay over in Congress for 30 days before it becomes law. It is scheduled to go into effect early next year when vehicle owners will have to show proof of insurance before registering their vehicles or getting their 1983 tags.
A spokesman for Geico, the city's largest auto insurer, which writes more than one-third of the policies here, said insurance under the bill would cost the average good driver about $200.
In a day-long session that ended about 6 p.m., the council also gave final approval to:
* An antidrunken-driving bill that lowers the blood-alcohol threshold at which a person is considered legally intoxicated and revises penalties for drivers convicted under the law.
* A ban on all sales of drug paraphernalia.
The council also unanimously overrode Barry's veto of a bill expanding council oversight of the city's urban renewal agency, but amended the measure to satisfy his main objection.
The council gave tentative approval--with final votes scheduled in two weeks--to measures that would revise the city's alcoholic beverage control laws, regulate enclosed sidewalk cafes, reorganize and expand the criminal code dealing with theft and white-collar crimes, and authorize the Board of Education to lease empty school space and retain the money for school needs.
The council's action on no-fault was hailed by Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, who said, "It is a success for both the consumers and the government."
Although personal injury claims are covered by the bill, property damage disputes would still be settled by determining who is at fault.
The bill also requires owners of the city's 250,000 vehicles to carry regular liability insurance for all claims that arise from accidents in states without no-fault laws, such as Virginia.
"A vote for no-fault is a vote against consumers," said Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who argued that the bill "takes away their almost holy right to go into court."
Rolark contended that the bill would not, as supporters have argued, mean faster payment of insurance claims for personal injuries, and asked, "What manner of monster are we constructing here?"
"It's one of the best auto insurance bills in the nation," countered Michael Richards, a lobbyist for HALT, a consumer group that helped lead the fight for no-fault.
"It's got problems, but they can be worked out," said Grover Czech, head of the American Insurance Association, a trade association involved in the fight.
Opponents of no-fault insurance contend that it has failed to work in states that have adopted it; that it inflates the profits of insurance companies, and that it puts consumers at a disadvantage in disputes with their insurance company over coverage.
The council turned back a series of amendments on the bill by 7-to-6 votes, even though several members said they may support some of the amendments in subsequent legislation. Had the council adopted any amendment that was considered "substantive," the bill would have been held up for another vote in two weeks.
A parliamentary snag occurred when Dixon retroactively ruled one amendment that did pass was technical, not substantive. Despite complaints from several members, Dixon was supported by an 8-to-5 vote and the amendment, offered by Jerry A. Moore Jr., failed to delay the bill.
Voting for final passage of the bill were Dixon, Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) and William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5).
Voting against were Rolark, Moore, Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and John Ray (D-At Large). Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who had opposed the bill in debate, voted present.
In other action, the council, by approving the drunk-driving bill, voted to set a blood alcohol level of .10--or about four 1 1/2-ounce drinks for an adult male in an hour--as proof that a person is legally drunk. Previously that level was considered only a presumption that a person was intoxicated. The new presumption level is .05.
The bill also would eliminate a provision in the city's law that bars the prosecution from telling juries whether a person refused to take a breath test to determine blood-alcohol level. The bill would reduce penalties for first-offense convictions, under the theory that more persons would be prosecuted for drunk driving rather than be allowed to plead to lesser offenses. It would also make it easier for prosecutors to get nonjury trials.
The ban on all sales of drug paraphernalia was adopted on an 11-to-2 vote, with Kane and Wilson opposing it. Clarke, chairman of the judiciary committee, contended the measure may be unconstitutional but voted for it.
The measure would outlaw a wide variety of pipes, bongs and other materials that are used, or are intended to be used with illegal drugs. The measure was adopted after last-minute lobbying by parent groups and council member Ray who argued that an earlier bill banning sales only to minors would send the wrong message to drug users in the city.
Kane and Wilson said the new bill was ambiguous and perhaps unenforceable.
The council unanimously overturned Barry's veto of the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) bill that would give the council the right to review documents describing proposed sales of city-owned property.
Barry vetoed the bill largely because the measure allowed public disclosure of land appraisals before the city signed contracts with purchasers. The council adopted an amendment to the bill that would disclose appraisals after any contracts were signed. Barry is expected to sign the new measure.
The school board bill would give it authority to lease space in underutilized schools and use the money for school needs rather than returning it to the city's general treasury as now required. The bill was supported as an alternative to closing schools.
The criminal code revisions, the product of more than two years of staff work by Clarke's committee, would clarify laws involving embezzlement, theft, shoplifting, and other "white-collar crimes."
The bill also includes a provision that would increase by half penalties for persons convicted of crimes against anyone over 60 years of age.
The council tentatively approved the revision of the city's Alcoholic Beverage Control laws after deleting the controversial amendment that would have restricted credit arrangements between wholesalers and retailers. Jarvis, who had proposed the amendment two weeks ago, said she had decided not to support it after talking with liquor dealers.
The measure also would expand the number of hours that liquor stores may be open.
The bill also would prohibit the ABC board from granting beer and wine licenses to convenience stores that are partly owned or have franchising agreements with large corporations. The bill exempts or "grandfathers" eight existing licenses in convenience stores and two applications still pending before the board.