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Contributory Negligence and D.C. Bike Laws

contributory negligence

Contributory negligence is a defense to civil suits. It dictates that an injured person is completely barred from recovering any compensation against an alleged defendant where the injured person was even 1% negligent. As an example, in states recognizing contributory negligence, if Driver A kills Driver B in a head-on collision because Driver A was extremely reckless and driving against traffic, if Driver B was over the speed limit when the collision occurred, Driver B’s family may have no recourse.  The only states in the entire country that recognize this draconian regime are North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

DC councilmember David Grosso recently introduced the Bicycle and Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2014. The Bill is designed to make it easier for a cyclist to get compensation for injuries sustained in accidents with cars by eliminating the contributory negligence defense in car-bicycle collisions. Why focus on bike riders? Councilmember Grosso is introducing this Bill because of an increase in bike accidents in the DC metro area. DDOT and Howard University recently reported a 130% increase in collisions involving cars and cyclists in the District from 2010 to 2012. Bicyclists are also more vulnerable and prone to being injured in accidents as they do not have metal doors and bumpers to protect them.

DC contributory negligence rules put bicyclists at a disadvantage by making it difficult to recover compensation for bike-car accidents. The blog Greater Greater Washington does a great job of explaining how bicyclists can be unfairly treated by contributory negligence rules:

Say you are riding along on your bicycle. Your tail light battery dies one evening, and then a texting driver crashes into you. Can you recover your medical costs from the driver?

Or, say you are on foot and need to cross a street where the nearest crosswalks are far away. But then a drunk driver speeds by and hits you.

Or, you’re biking and get doored. A police officer, confused about the law, incorrectly tickets you for riding too close to parked cars.

Changes to DC law may be needed. According to a study by The League of American Bicyclists, only 12% of fatal cyclist accidents result in any form of punishment for the driver or compensation for the family of the victim. In the fatal accidents analyzed, 45% had some indication of a potential enforcement action and 21% had evidence of a likely charge.

On September 29, 2014 the DC City Council held a hearing in which several advocates on both sides of this issue testified and argued for their respective positions. Those in favor of the modifications to DC contributory negligence rule argued that DC’s law is too harsh and results in unfair outcomes for bicyclists. Those against modifications to DC law argued that changing the law will increase insurance premiums and increase tax burdens on DC citizens. For a thorough summary of the arguments from the bicyclists’ standpoint check out The Wash Cycle’s blog post.

For more information on this issue, please check out a DC Bar brown bag event on October 22, 2014.  I (Peter Anderson) will be moderating a webinar and a seminar and you can attend relatively cheaply. I invite anyone interested to participate. We’ll be hosting speakers from both sides of this issue to debate the merits of changes to D.C.’s contributory negligence law.