Where’s that Crash Victims Bill?

Legislation was reintroduced this year that would reform negligence law in the District and make the law more fair for crash victims.

Current D.C. law recognizes the doctrine of contributory negligence, under which the victim of a negligent act cannot recover for her harm if she is found to have contributed in any way through her own negligence.  Translated into real life, this means a bicyclist injured in a crash cannot collect damages if she was in any way at fault, even if the other party bears a disproportionate amount of blame.

As a result of this antiquated doctrine, insurance companies routinely deny claims resulting from crashes, leaving injured bicyclists with few options. This is a serious problem for people who are harmed while riding bicycles due to the frequency with which improper citations are issued to the cyclist in a crash.

Legislation introduced in 2014 to change the law to a fairer standard was tabled, largely over concerns by the Trial Lawyers Association over joint and several liability, a doctrine that helps make it financially viable for plaintiff’s attorneys take on these types of cases. This year, Councilmember Cheh reintroduced an updated version of the bill designed to address those concerns.

The bill has a lot of support, but has been stuck in Judiciary committee since January waiting for a vote so it can be considered by the full Council. Please contact the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Councilmember McDuffie, and ask him to move the bill forward.

Contact Councilmember McDuffie


Below, you’ll find our answers for the most common questions we’ve encountered, updated to reflect the 2015 version of the bill.

(This is an update of this post)

What is being proposed in this bill?

The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2015 (bill and legislative history) changes DC law so that contributory negligence could not be used to deny coverage to a bicyclist or pedestrian who was 50% or less responsible for her injuries. It also explicitly retains the doctrine of joint and several liability.

Under current law, what happens after a crash?

Generally, after a crash between a bicyclist and a motorist, there is an injured bicyclist and an uninjured motorist. So the cyclist often will seek compensation for injuries from the motorist and the motorist’s insurer. If everyone involved agrees that the cyclist behaved perfectly and the driver was completely at fault, the cyclist will be able to recover compensation. Unfortunately, such agreement is rare.  If the cyclist was at fault to any degree, or if the insurer or a police officer believes the cyclist was at fault through misunderstanding or misapplying the law, the cyclist will not be able to recover compensation for injuries suffered in the crash. This is true even if the crash was 1% the cyclist’s fault, 99% the motorist’s fault, and all of the injuries were suffered by the cyclist.

How will this change under the proposed bill?

A person harmed by a motor vehicle while walking or biking would not be barred from recovering damages as long as they were deemed less than 50% at fault.

For example: a motorist exiting her vehicle at night opens her driver’s side door into the bike lane, striking a cyclist who had no light at night. The motorist’s door is not damaged and the motorist is unharmed, but the cyclist suffers a broken arm from the fall and ends up with $1000 in medical bills.

Under the present contributory negligence standard, the cyclist’s failure to have a light would prevent all recovery of damages, even though the motorist broke the law by opening her door into traffic. Under the new law, riding a bike without lights would not be a complete bar to recovery, if the finder of fact determined that not having lights on was less than 50% of the cause of the crash.

Contributory negligence applies to all sorts of situations. Does the proposed law change the standard for all cases?

No. This legislation applies specifically to bicyclists, pedestrians, and other vulnerable road users of the roads.

Have other states changed their negligence standard?

Forty-five states, and the federal court system have adopted comparative negligence as a basis for apportioning fault between parties in tort suits.

How many states still retain the contributory negligence standard?

Currently, just four states (including Maryland and Virginia) and the District of Columbia continue to use contributory negligence as a bar to recovery and access to courts.

Is there any precedent in current law for an exemption such as the one being proposed?

Yes, current District of Columbia law extends additional legal protection of comparative negligence to railroad workers.

If I’m following traffic laws to the best of my abilities and I am involved in a crash, could I still have my medical bills and damages reduced or totally denied?

Yes. Poor descriptions in accident reports, wrongly issued tickets, and misunderstandings or misapplication of bicycling laws can result in insurance companies denying claims for medical expenses.

Who benefits from this bill becoming law?

Vulnerable road users and motorists alike. This approach to negligence law  more equitably distributes the costs of unsafe behavior by all road users. Under the current law, motorists face few repercussions for behavior that results in a crash with a bicycle.  With this change to negligence law, it will become easier for injured bicyclists to gain access to legal representation, because lawyers have a financial incentive to take their case. At the same time, a greater number of unsafe drivers will face consequences for behavior that results in a crash, including having their insurance premiums go up.  By incentivizing safe driving, everyone who uses the road, including motorists, will ultimately benefit.

Who loses if this bill becomes law?

Insurance companies, who presently are not required to pay for the negligence of their insured if the other party is negligent (to any degree). Contributory negligence is not an economically efficient or fair method for determining compensation after crashes because it leaves injured parties who were not primarily responsible for their injuries uncompensated and allows the insurers of the primarily negligent party to avoid compensating the injured.

If you have further questions about this proposed legislation and its effects, please email advocacy@waba.org