Mayor Barry's proposed revision (spell it g-u-t-t-i-n-g, if you will) of the District's no-fault auto insurance law is up for second reading before the City Council tomorrow. If it passes, no-fault will, in practical terms, be dead.
That much is clear. What is a good deal muddier is this: How bad a thing will the demise of no-fault be?
The one thing that is no help in clarifying matters is to listen to altruistic sermonizing of the two major lobbies: the trial bar and the insurance industry.
The trial lawyers want you to believe that it was their interest in your citizen's right to sue that led them to oppose no- fault when it was being considered two years ago and to support the proposed eviceration today. They become positively indignant if you suggest, as the insurance lobby does, that the lawyers' own economic interests may be the major motivator.
The industry for its part insists that all it wants is for you to have better protection at the lowest possible cost -- as though their corporate profits are no consideration at all.
As the plain-spoken council member John Wilson put it, "We're looking at two evils. The insurance companies are evil, and the whole tort lawyer situation is evil. The question for the council is how do you balance out the evils so that the consumer is protected. I think this (the mayor's proposal) does a better job."
The present law requires D.C. motorists to carry personal injury protection of up to $100,000, lost-income coverage of up to $24,000 a year, another $24,000 worth of coverage for lost personal and family services and $2,000 funeral benefit -- all without requiring the injured party to prove that someone else was at fault. The trade-off is an injured person may not sue for non-economic loss -- so-called "pain and suffering" until medical expenses exceed $5,000. (Another provision of the present law requires a minimum of $5,000 property-damage insurance; but that is traditional rather than no-fault coverage. The minimum would double to $10,000 under the mayor's proposal.)
At heart of the District's no-fault law is a medical policy, and one of the most telling arguments opponents make against it is that most D.C. drivers already have medical coverage which no-fault would largely duplicate.
Councilman John Ray, who favors changing the law, makes just that argument.
"Take my situation, which isn't all that atypical," he says. "When the present law kicked in, I had to buy no-fault insurance in addition to what I already had, but what do I get for it? I already have medical insurance from my job. I have to buy $24,000 worth of work-loss coverage that I can never collect, because I get paid on my job if I'm hurt. And the person who makes less than $24,000 is paying for more coverage than he can collect, and the welfare mother with a car can't collect any of it.
"If you're interested in keeping certain individuals out of court, no-fault is the way to do it."
And keeping people out of court, because they no longer have to prove that someone else is to blame for their injuries, is the principal appeal of no-fault. As the Alliance of American Insurers argues, the reduction of the amount of litigation allows more of each premium dollar to go to injured parties rather than lawyers; it allows for quicker payment of guaranteed benefits and reduces premiums (or at least retards the rate of premium increase).
Proponents of the new bill contend that medical coverage is not the most important consideration in the District, where auto accidents are more typically of the fender- bender sort. "Most people are concerned about getting their car fixed after the accident, and no-fault doesn't do a thing for them," says Wilson.
So which is the better idea: the present no-fault law or the mayor's proposal that would require traditional insurance, with a no-fault option? I don't know. And one of the reasons I don't know is that the special commission appointed to tell us just what has happened under D.C. no-fault has not completed its work and has yet to report.
Which raises this question for the council: What's the rush?