A majority of the D.C. City Council members who seven months ago sponsored a proposal for mandatory no-fault automobile insurance here have abandoned public support for the measure in the face of intense lobbying by trial lawyers fearful of losing business.
In June, nine of the council's 13 members, led by Chairman Arrington Dixon, proposed a compulsory no-fault system that would cover an estimated 99 percent of all accidents in the District, where about half of the drivers are currently uninsured.
By last week, however, only one of the nine--council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At-large)--was still a firm supporter of the no-fault proposal.
Most of the others say they either are uncertain about no-fault, open to compromise or are in favor of a proposal by council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), a foe of no-fault. Rolark says her system would provide incentives for most drivers to have insurance, but it would not require insurance, nor would it severely reduce the number of court cases resulting from auto accidents the way no-fault would.
The proposal by Rolark, chairman of the Public Service and Consumer Affairs Committee, is similar to the insurance system now in use in Virginia. It would require drivers who do not have insurance to pay the city annual penalties of $300 per car. The money would go into a fund administered by the mayor, who could spend it as he sees fit.
The Rolark measure, touted as a compromise between no-fault and compulsory auto liability insurance that many consider too expensive, was drawn up with significant help from an insurance company lobbyist and the president of the Association of Plaintiffs' Trial Attorneys of Washington, D.C., which is credited with spearheading the crusade against no-fault.
"We are fiercely opposed to anything that stops us from using the courts," said Clinton W. Chapman, president of the association. "I don't care if it is a finger-prick, I want the right to go into court for damages."
All sides agree that no-fault would eliminate court cases in virtually all automobile accidents. Chapman and other lawyers argue that blacks, who make up 70 percent of the city's population, should not give up access to courts.
"We have come through the civil rights days," said Chapman. "We have the courts, people who are sympathetic. We don't want to get away from that."
Chapman and others also contend that no-fault would be an especially tough economic blow for many black lawyers in the District, who have been kept out of the lucrative law practices of largely white law firms and depend on personal injury claims for a great deal of their business.
No-fault supporters argue that a compulsory no-fault system similar to those now in effect in 17 states would cost the average city motorist with a good driving record about $73 annually for minimum coverage, much lower than "good-driver" premiums under the current system and more affordable for most of the owners of the estimated 114,000 vehicles in the District.
The no-fault bill introduced last year would have permitted personal injury claims of up to $100,000 and lost-wages claims of up to $24,000 to be paid without court procedings to determine which driver was at fault in the accident.
Persons who received permanent injuries and survivors of those killed in accidents would have been allowed to sue in any circumstance.
Rolark believes the $300 penalty, which could be paid in monthly installments, would prompt many motorists to obtain insurance coverage, which in some instances could be cheaper. Last year in Virginia, where there was a $200 fee, only five to 10 percent of the state's drivers were uninsured, according to state officials. Virginia is currently in the process of raising its annual fee to $250.
Critics of the Rolark fee plan, including consumer groups and the city's largest auto insurer, GEICO, say the penalty would be difficult to administer and confusing for motorists who might think they were buying insurance with the fee. It also has few safeguards against persons who say they are insured and really are not, the critics say.
In addition, there would be inadequate financial deterrents for high-risk drivers, who ordinarily pay as much as $1,000 in annual insurance premiums to drive but now could get back on the road for only $300, the critics say.
"You can't cover everybody," Rolark replies.
Last year, Dixon and Kane were joined in cosponsorship of the no-fault proposal by Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), Hilda Mason (Statehood-At-large), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) and Jerry A. Moore Jr. (R-At-large).
Then the trial lawyers unleashed their campaign, led by Chapman and helped by Larry Williams, a prominent attorney and a lobbyist for the trial lawyers association.
They encouraged clients to write and telephone council members, they encouraged their members to become involved in political campaigns and contribute money to candidates (seven council seats are up for election this fall) and they told city residents at church and community meetings that the no-fault proposal would deny them constitutional and moral rights.
Last week, council member Spaulding said he is now undecided on no-fault. He consponsored the bill last summer just to get it on the table, he said. Being a cosponsor "doesn't commit a person to that and only that," Spaulding said, acknowledging that he has been lobbied heavily by constituents and trial lawyers.
Dixon said he still favors no-fault but is willing to compromise and accept some form of mandatory insurance--perhaps, some council members and staff say, in a strategy to get any kind of measure to the floor where it could be amended. Mason said she is undecided and declined to discuss the issue further.
Jarvis and Shackleton said they need more information on the cost of a no-fault system before they can say if they will vote for that plan. Shackleton said, however, that she still "supports the concept of no-fault" and favors some type of compulsory liability insurance.
Winter said she is no longer for no-fault and is leaning toward the Rolark proposal, though she may end up introducing her own bill.
A spokeswoman for Crawford said he is leaning toward the Rolark plan also, in part because his mail and phone calls have been decidedly anti no-fault.
An aide to Moore said of his boss' stance, "His position is 'no comment.' "
Prospects for no-fault were brightest last June, when hearings were held on the no-fault bill and other auto insurance proposals. At that time, Rolark, a lawyer who acknowledges that her associate handles some personal injury cases, promised swift action. Instead, the legislation became bottled up in her committee, despite efforts by Dixon to get the committee to act.
In the face of the stalemate, officials at GEICO, which writes more than 30 percent of the auto policies in the city and still prefers no-fault, abandoned hope for the bill, telling the trial lawyers in a private meeting in December that the company would support a compromise.
"It was a political decision. We didn't have the votes," one GEICO official said. "The way it was going," the official said, "nothing was going to get passed. It was going to sit in Rolark's committee for our lifetime."
Michael Richards, legislative director of a consumer group, Help Abolish Legal Tyranny, said GEICO's action "was selling out the consumer coalition by agreeing to a so-called compromise that benefits only the trial lawyers and insurance industry."
He said consumers would be left paying higher insurance premiums, have settlements delayed in courts and have inadequate coverage.
Trial lawyers chief Chapman and GEICO's chief lobbyist, August Alegi, held a private meeting last December in Chapman's law office on 15th Street NW, after deciding that the impasse had to be broken.
Alegi said the compromise agreed upon in that meeting would require insurance companies to offer uninsured and underinsured motorist protection to all District policyholders. He said that would give consumers at least a chance to protect themselves from the uninsured motorists who remain on the road.
Alegi and Chapman told Rolark that both would support the uninsured motorist protections, leaving attorneys an unfettered right to file law suits in personal injury cases and to seek "pain and suffering" compensation.
Rolark made the measure part of a substitute proposal that she introduced in her committee Jan. 19. The committee is scheduled to vote on a version of the bill on Tuesday.
Rolark, who says she supports the trial lawyers' position on no-fault, is one of three attorneys on the City Council. She has a law office at 1625 I St. NW where she practices under her maiden name, Wilhelmina Jackson. She said in an interview last week that she has only handled one personal injury case--in Maryland--since becoming a member of the council in 1977.
However, she acknowledged that another lawyer working out of her office, Barry Lenoir, whom she described as an associate, does handle a few personal injury cases. "It would be good if he had some, he'd be making himself some money," she said.
"My associate is independent in his practice. . . . I associate with him to help me with my cases. . . . I pay him to help me, he pays me expenses," she said. She declined to discuss the arrangement further.
Rolark said she does not consider her legal work a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict of interest. If she had, she said, she would have reported it to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which oversees the conflict of interest code for city officials.
Rolark noted that on three occassions during the past two years she has voluntarily disqualified herself from voting on issues, including one that affected city probate laws (much of her legal work involves estates) and advertising in newspapers (her husband Calvin is publisher of The Washington Informer weekly newspaper).
Another of the council's lawyer-members, John Ray (D-At-large), has been a longtime critic of no-fault and says he has received about $15,000 from trial lawyers for his campaign for the Democratic nomination for mayor in the Sept. 14 primary.
The third lawyer on the council, David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), is in favor of some type of mandatory insurance but has not yet determined which kind. Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) said he supports the Rolark compromise.
Dixon, who worked as an insurance agent during the time he was the council member from Ward 4, is a law school graduate but not a member of the local bar.