For the second time, a D.C. Council panel on Wednesday postponed action on a bill that would reform the city’s “contributory negligence” doctrine, which some advocates say prevents bicyclists and pedestrians from receiving compensation when they are injured in a collision with a vehicle.
Council members said the bill, which would exempt bikers and pedestrians from the contributory negligence standard that governs tort claims in the District, is not ready for approval, and likely would not pass during this Council session. But some lawmakers said they wanted extra time to see if an agreement can be reached before it is brought back for a vote before Thanksgiving.
The proposal would change contributory negligence to a comparative negligence standard, which dictates how the responsibility for an accident would be shared between the parties involved in an accident. This could make it easier for vulnerable road users to collect damages when they’re injured in collisions with vehicles.
Although advocates for cyclists and pedestrians back the change, opposition has been strong among trial lawyers and the insurance industry who say the switch would result in unintended consequences.
Insurers’ groups say they are concerned about the impact it would have on insurance costs to D.C. drivers. Trial lawyers have argued that the bill as it is now would impede the ability of plaintiffs to be fully compensated when multiple defendants are at fault and some have more resources than others.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said before embarking on such a change the city also must consider that Maryland and Virginia are two of the four states that use contributory negligence and any actions the city takes could have regional ramifications.
This is the third time the proposal has been introduced, and it is likely to be the third time it will be killed in the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
On Monday, committee chair Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 4), Anita Bonds (D-At Large) met with trial lawyers, insurers and representatives from the bike and pedestrian communities to discuss the bill, but no consensus was reached.
Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee and co-introduced the bill in July, said Wednesday that more time is needed to work on the proposal and it is likely the discussion would extent until after the new Council convenes in January.
“It is not wise for us to be hasty about something that is quite important and has lots of ramifications,” she said.
Supporters of the bill see the change to a comparative negligence standard as a key step in protecting a growing number of cyclists and pedestrians who now share the road with motorists. They say it would bring fairness to the system and be consistent with the District’s claim as a top bike- and pedestrian-friendly city.
Under current law, they say, it is very difficult for cyclists or pedestrians to collect damages in cases where they sustained injuries and were at greater than 1 percent fault in the collision. Wells, who supports the bill, said insurers use the law to deny claims to injured cyclists.
Most states now use a system of comparative fault, but studies suggest that such systems results in more claim filings, which would add to an increase in judicial expenses, and significant impacts on insurance costs.
Increasing insurance costs could result in some city residents dropping their coverage, insurers argue.
“When costs go up, people who are most affected are people with few means. They are the ones who are least able to afford these cost increases and they may drop the coverage and that doesn’t benefit anybody,” said Eric M. Goldberg, vice president of the American Insurance Association.