DC Bicycle Accident Law Revisited
Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all follow a legal rule that dates back to the early 1800s called contributory negligence. Under the contributory negligence rule, a person who is injured cannot recover damages in a personal injury lawsuit if they failed to exercise due care themselves. Even if the plaintiff is only one percent at fault (and the defendant 99 percent at fault), the plaintiff is barred from recovery.
Today, most states have abandoned the contributory negligence rule in favor of comparative negligence, which compares the degree to which the plaintiff is responsible for his or her own injuries and adjusts damages accordingly. However, contributory negligence is still the rule in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. As recently as 2013, Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, considered whether to change the contributory negligence rule and declined to do so.
New Bill Proposed in D.C.
The latest push away from the contributory negligence rule is occurring in the District of Columbia, where a new piece of legislation was proposed. This legislation would change the contributory negligence rule, but only for bicyclists. Under the new law, a bicyclist who is involved in an accident would be able to recover their total damages, reduced in proportion to their relative degree of fault – a comparative negligence rule.
According to the Washington Post, the number of reported bike accidents in the District of Columbia doubled in the last six years, reaching 600 accidents annually. It is important to note that this statistic only includes those accidents that were serious enough to be reported.
Is the Rule Change a Good Idea?
Advocates for the new bill argue that police officers in Washington, D.C. lack compassion for bicyclists and training with regard to bicycle laws. When a bicyclist is involved in an accident with a car, police are quick to make note in the report of the possibility that the bicyclist could have contributed to the collision. Under the contributory negligence rule, any suggestion that the bicyclist was negligent can prevent them from recovering personal injury damages.
Another argument in favor of the bill is that damages in a bicycle/car collision are often disproportionate. A bicycle may put a dent in the car, but it is unlikely that the car’s driver will suffer a substantial injury. On the other hand, bicyclists often suffer severe injuries or even death. A more lenient comparative negligence rule for bicyclists could potentially compensate for this disparity in injuries.
There are also significant arguments against the bill. Negligence among bicyclists is already a concern in many major cities. For example, popular new bike sharing programs do not provide helmets or bike safety training, leading to an increase in bicyclist injuries. Placing the financial burden of these injuries on drivers and, in turn, insurance companies, would cause car insurance to become more expensive.
A related concern is why bicyclists should receive favorable treatment under the law when compared to drivers. If the contributory negligence rule is abandoned for one group of people, why should it not be abandoned altogether?
This new bill is just one example of how personal injury law is always changing. An experienced personal injury lawyer stays abreast of these changes in order to best advocate for his or her clients.
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