The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Council proposal to protect bicylists, pedestrians dies in committee

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A vote was postponed twice and D.C. lawmakers said they tried to salvage the bill, but in the end legislation that would have made it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to collect damages when injured in crashes with motor vehicles was killed in a council committee Tuesday.

D.C. law uses a standard of contributory negligence, meaning that if the cyclist or pedestrian is found to be 1 percent at fault in a crash, he or she cannot recover damages.

The bill killed Tuesday would have changed contributory negligence to a comparative negligence standard, which dictates how the responsibility for an accident would be shared between the parties involved in a crash. The legislation would have made it easier for bikers and pedestrians to collect damages.

But during discussion of the bill in the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, lawmakers said the legislation wasn’t ready to be moved, and that more discussion was needed.

Insurers’ groups argued that changing the law would impact insurance costs paid by D.C. drivers and put the District at a disadvantage because Maryland and Virginia continue to use the contributory negligence doctrine. Trial lawyers, too, opposed the proposal, arguing that the bill as it was crafted had potential to impede the ability of plaintiffs to be fully compensated when multiple defendants are at fault and some have more resources than others.

Committee member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 4) on Tuesday asked the committee to table the proposal, saying she wasn’t ready for it to move forward. Also voting in favor of tabling the measure were Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Council chair Phil Mendelson. Committee chair Tommy Wells vote against tabling the bill. 

Wells, the lone supporter of the bill, lamented its fate. This is the third time the proposal has been introduced and failed. The bill’s sponsor, Council member David Grosso (D-At-Large), said he plans to reintroduce the measure when the new Council convenes in January.

Wells said he hopes the proposal, which captured more attention this year,  eventually passes so the city can offer better protections to pedestrians and bicyclists who are vulnerable and under today’s standard are often denied compensation when they are injured in collisions with vehicles.

“I feel very good that we have been able to push this into the forefront, and this is how eventually laws do get changed. Clearly there is a lot of public interest in this and I expect that somewhere down the road, the law will be changed,” said Wells, who is not returning to the Council next year.

D.C. is just one of a handful jurisdictions in the country that continues to use the contributory negligence standard. Some studies suggest that a system of comparative fault results in more claim filings, which would increase judicial expenses, and significantly impact insurance costs, insurers said. 

In addition to the likely increase in insurance costs, opponents say they fear businesses with large fleets of vehicles would see significant cost increases, while the government would see additional expenses stemming from an increase in case filings.

Eric M. Goldberg, vice president of the American Insurance Association, said instead the District could enact legislation that protects vulnerable users without changing the tort law. For example, he said, other states have laws that impose monetary fines on drivers who are at fault during an incident and force them to take additional driver education; the court also can order restitution for damages.

“If a driver is at fault and injures somebody that is on a bicycle or other user they have to be taken care of, but we need to figure out a way to do that in a way that doesn’t also increase costs on businesses, on the government and on drivers,” he said.

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which supported the bill,  said it’s hard to believe that in a city known as bike-friendly, where 4.5 percent of working residents commute by bicycle and 13.6 percent walk to work, it would be so difficult to pass this measure. No suggestions for improving the bill were acceptable to opponents, he said.

“They have simply objected to the bill without really offering a solution,” he said. “Our concern is to provide access to justice for bicyclists that are struck… . We are open to whatever solutions.”

Farthing said he hopes the publicity this year will increase the chances of the measure passing in the future.

“We have high hopes that it will happen,” he said. “The ability to put the spotlight on this system of unfairness will make it easier to solve in the future. If there is a way to solve this problem and get the access to justice done in another way, we are absolutely open to working on any approach.”