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What’s Holding Back DC’s Bill to Help Crash Victims Recover Medical Costs?

9:28 AM PST on November 7, 2014

Street safety advocates in Washington, DC, have been pushing for an important legal reform that would help pedestrians and bicyclists injured in car collisions. The DC Council will today consider a bill to reform the definition of "contributory negligence," which currently makes it almost impossible for victims to recover their medical costs after a collision. As Tanya reported yesterday, DC is one of just a handful of places in America where pedestrians and cyclists are denied this type of compensation under the law.

Unfortunately, it looks like the bill might not make it out of committee. The reason? David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington reports that trial lawyers have organized against it, and they have the ear of key swing vote Mary Cheh:

You might ask, wait a minute. This bill is supposed to help cyclists and pedestrians recover if they are injured. And trial lawyers are the people who bring those lawsuits. So why are they against this?

It's because of a legal doctrine known as "joint and several liability." As Wells explained it, if you're hit by a driver who has no money, but someone else who was negligent in some way (maybe the brakes manufacturer, if the brakes failed, for example), you can also go after that party. And even if most of the fault isn't with them, you could recover all of the medical costs from the deeper-pocketed entity.

The root problem is that trial lawyers are concerned with the less common but very large dollar value cases, which are important. But, Washington Area Bicyclist Association head Shane Farthing says, there are the far more numerous, small cases where a cyclist or pedestrian gets an insurance claim denied under contributory negligence even if the victim's liability is extremely minor or just a police officer's misinterpretation of the law.

Cheh retorts that if insurance companies are improperly denying claims, maybe the solution is a different law that deals with that case. But there's no guarantee there is a good way to deal with that. Meanwhile, this bill which could do some good has had a committee hearing and is ready for a vote.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Streets.mn talks about the importance of front doors to a comfortable and inviting pedestrian experience. Urban Milwaukee says the county's new transit plan is well-intentioned but half-baked. And the Bicycle Safety Institute makes the case for rules of the road tailored for bicycling.

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