A bill to change a negligence standard that advocates say treats cyclists and pedestrians injured in crashes unfairly may fail in a D.C. Council committee tomorrow. It wouldn't be the first — or second — time.
But if that does happen, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association plans to let the public know which Councilmembers supported getting rid of contributory negligence — and which ones didn't — with a scorecard sent to members and published online.
A bill introduced by Councilmember David Grosso (At-Large) and Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells would end the use of contributory negligence in crashes involving vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. Currently, if a pedestrian or cyclist is found to be even one percent at fault in a crash, they cannot recover damages.
"We have a lot of people walking and biking, and they deserve to have the legal and economic protection that [if] they're in a crash that they're compensated for their injuries," WABA's Greg Billing said after a press conference Thursday. "[The insurance lobby doesn't] want to pay people who get hurt."
Shane Farthing, WABA's executive director, said the scorecard is the first of its kind for his group. He noted the disconnect between city leaders who support a transportation plan that puts an emphasis on walking and cycling, but then leave "vulnerable roadway users" without help when they are hurt. "It's unjust and inappropriate," he said. "Our Councilmembers need to be held accountable."
Wells noted at today's press conference that the bill has been introduced "three times on behalf of bicyclists and other vulnerable users of our roadways." He chairs the Council's Committee on the Judiciary, which will hold a hearing on the bill tomorrow.
"I think once again it will fail because of the outside interests of the insurance companies who do not want to pay for the injuries of folks who are in a conflict with a car," he said.
In addition to Wells, Councilmember and mayor-elect Muriel Bowser is on the committee, as are Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Jack Evans and Mary Cheh. In an election survey put out by advocacy group All Walks DC, Bowser said replacing contributory negligence is an "issue that deserves further consideration," while Bonds voiced support for the measure.
"Trial lawyers are concerned this could be the camel's nose under the tent," Wells said. "That it could impact the size of the awards."
Wells said trial lawyers hold "a lot of sway in the John Wilson building."
"We just went through an election cycle, they contribute a lot of money to campaigns," he said. "And that will have an impact."
Grosso noted that, between the first hearing and now, he worked with trial lawyers who expressed concern over the bill to make changes. "There's no reason why this shouldn't move forward, but there's obviously some hesitancy," he said.
When asked how the Council decides between one interest (trial lawyers, insurance companies) and another (cyclists, pedestrians), Grosso said it's partially about the strength of the advocacy. "WABA and others are stepping up," he said, adding that it's a "completely different world" in D.C. than when city's roads were originally designed.
"I don't think it's as much around what these groups can do to move us," Grosso said. "It's about how quickly Councilmembers can change their opinions on how we do things."
Grosso said some Councilmembers are more conservative in their approach than progressive, defined by Grosso as someone who sees the changes happening in the city and moves urgently. "They're willing to wait ... and go over it and go over it for years and years and years," he said. "In my world, we have too many people getting hurt."
While Grosso agrees that all road users need to follow the laws, this issue is about "making sure that people are covered when they're hurt and getting rid of this arcane system."