Vulnerable road users rally for a fairer legal system

Photo from @cmdgrosso
Pedestrian and bicycling advocates gathered at the Wilson Building on Thursday for a press conference held by Councilmembers Tommy Wells and David Grosso to bring attention to a bill that would improve the ability of vulnerable road users to collect damages if they are struck by a motor vehicle.

Wells and Grosso were promoting the “Vulnerable User Recovery Act of 2014,” legislation that would allow the District to adopt a legal standard of comparative negligence in place of the existing contributory negligence standard. The District is one of a handful of jurisdictions in the country that still practices the contributory negligence doctrine, meaning that a bicyclist or pedestrian can be denied insurance compensation even if an automobile driver with whom they collide is found to be 99 percent at fault and the bicyclist or pedestrian is just one percent to blame. Using a comparative negligence standard instead of a contributory negligence standard would allow a judge, jury or insurance adjustor to weigh the fault of the driver and bicyclist. For example, under comparative negligence a $10,000 award to a bicyclist from a driver’s insurance would be lowered to $6,000 if the bicyclist is determined to be 40 percent at fault for the collision. Under current District law, the bicyclist can be denied any compensation.

“This is unjust,” Grosso said at the press conference. He vowed to reintroduce the bill in January if the measure fails during these closing days of the current legislative session.

The bill was originally introduced by Grosso to cover bicyclists only, but at a September 29 hearing pedestrian advocates, including the D.C. Pedestrian Advisory Council, asked that pedestrians be included in the legislation. Pedestrians are no match for cars, PAC representative Jessica Tunon testified at the hearing. “Pedestrian errors do not have the same inherent potential for danger and violence as driver errors,” Tunon said. “It seems only fair to weigh each party’s degree of responsibility and distribute compensation in proportion to the degree of fault.” In addition to bicyclists and pedestrians, the bill would cover wheelchair users, roller skaters, road construction or emergency services workers and others.

In asking council members to support Bill 20-884, the PAC listed the following reasons:

  • More than 800 pedestrians are struck each year in the District, and 300 of them sustain serious injuries. Pedestrians are much more likely than drivers to suffer injuries, incur hospital bills and miss workdays.
  • Although collision victims sometimes succeed in court despite the existing contributory negligence law, crash victims with less serious injuries may never hire lawyers or go to court. Instead, they seek compensation through insurance claims, and those claims may be denied because of the District’s contributory negligence law. The change in law will allow victims to have a greater chance to collect compensation.
  • The bill has been amended specifically to address the concerns of the trial lawyers regarding joint and several liability.
  • During some crash investigations, misunderstandings or confusing evidence result in pedestrians being unfairly ruled at fault. The change in law will allow them to have a chance to collect compensation despite those mistakes.
  • 46 other jurisdictions have already dropped the contributory negligence standard.

On Friday, the D.C. Council Judiciary and Public Safety Committee will consider the “Vulnerable User Recovery Act of 2014.” Committee members have the opportunity to create a fairer legal system for injured pedestrians and other vulnerable road users throughout the District.