ADVOCATES FOR bicyclists and pedestrians argue that District law puts them at a disadvantage when they are hit by automobiles. The city operates with an outdated standard of contributory negligence, they say, which makes it hard, sometimes impossible, for vulnerable roadway users to seek redress for injuries and damages caused by collisions with cars. They may be right about the need for change, but the D.C. Council should not carve a special exception in the law for one class of citizens. Any change should be across the board, and it should come only after careful study.
Legislation pending before the council would exempt bikers and pedestrians from the doctrine of contributory negligence that governs tort claims in the District. This legal defense essentially holds that plaintiffs cannot receive compensation if their actions contributed to the damages incurred, even if the other party also was at fault.
Contributory negligence has been all but eliminated nationally. Only four states and the District have such a system, while 46 states opt for a standard of comparative negligence, which bases compensation on an apportionment of responsibility. Advocates argue that is a fairer way to get redress for people who suffer harm. If so, why apply it piecemeal, advantaging a special class of citizens?
Some people argue, meanwhile, that a switch would have unintended consequences and hidden costs. Trial lawyers, for example, are concerned that it would hamper the ability of plaintiffs to be fully compensated when multiple defendants are at fault but some have more resources than others. Other considerations include a possible impact on insurance rates and the fact that neighboring Maryland and Virginia are two of the four states that use contributory negligence.
When the council’s judiciary committee meets Wednesday, it should defer action on the Bicycle and Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2014. Instead, it should undertake a more comprehensive review of the law. In the meantime, debate over the legislation has pointed to problems that could be fixed without legislation as the city strives to be friendly to cars, bikes and pedestrians. These include how accidents involving cyclists are investigated and the need to educate both drivers and bikers about roadway safety.