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Is D.C. Council Set to Strike the Doctrine of Contributory Negligence for Bicyclists and Pedestrians?

By Allan M. Siegel

Today, the D.C. Council will be voting to on a law which will make it easier to hold negligent drivers responsible when they cause injuries to bicyclists or pedestrians. Currently, the doctrine of contributory negligence holds that if a person who has suffered a personal injury is in any way at fault for the injury, then they are completely barred from recovering compensation for their injuries. In other words, if a bicyclist or pedestrian is 1% negligent and the motorist is 99% negligent, the bicyclist or pedestrian will be precluded from recovery.

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For example, if a pedestrian chooses to cross outside of the crosswalk thinking it is safe and he is struck by a speeding motorist, who was not paying attention, the pedestrian will not likely be able to recover, even though the motorist should have seen the pedestrian and avoided hitting him or her. This is particularly devastating in bicycle and pedestrian accidents because these are the individuals injured the worse when these incidents occur, and are often unjustly precluded from receiving any compensation from insurance companies.

Throughout the United States, 46 other states have already done away with the harsh contributory negligence system and have moved onto a system known as comparative negligence, which allows for compensation based on the percentage of fault. The DC Council will be considering a bill today to change this antiquated law for pedestrians and bicyclists.

In an effort to defeat this bill, an association representing auto insurers in D.C., the Property Casualty Insurers of America, has been spreading false information and exaggerated claims, stating that rates will jump by 24% in the District if this bill passes. A careful evaluation of this analysis demonstrates that it is based upon flawed assumptions and grossly inflated cost data. For example, they calculated this finding as if 100% of all crashes in D.C. involve a D.C. driver, when in fact according to a 2014 DDOT report only 37% of all crashes involved a D.C. insured driver. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association is fighting to help pass this bill. You can show your support through their site by submissions to the council here and by rallying at the Wilson Building today.