District of Columbia Council Proposes Changing Negligence Law
Who Should Be Blamed in Lawsuits
The D.C. Council is trying to reach agreement on a bill to reform the District’s standard for assessing fault in traffic accident lawsuits.
The proposal would change the current contributory negligence standard to comparative negligence.
The contributory negligence doctrine can prevent a victim who is at fault to a lesser degree than the defendant from winning any compensation in a lawsuit.
Comparative negligence assesses the fault among plaintiffs and defendants as a percentage of the total negligence.
Under contributory negligence, a pedestrian crossing the street negligently who is hit by a reckless and speeding driver could be barred from compensation in a lawsuit. Under comparative negligence, the pedestrian could be compensated but the amount would be reduced by the degree of the pedestrian’s fault.
The District of Columbia joins Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia as the only remaining states clinging to traditional contributory negligence rules.
Some of the political will for changing the law comes from bicyclists, who say contributory negligence prevents them from recovering compensation when they are hit by motorists. The move to change the law coincides with D.C. Council efforts to make the city more bicycle-friendly.
The issue has come up for a vote twice previously in the D.C. Council but both times it never reached a vote because of disputes over how to word the new law.
The wording of the current bill would exempt bikers and pedestrians from contributory negligence standards in tort claims.
Insurers and some trial lawyers have expressed concern about changing the law. Insurance companies say a switch to comparative negligence would raise insurance costs for motorists by making it easier for anyone even marginally involved in accidents to collect damages.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) warned that any change in the law would have a regional impact because Maryland and Virginia also use contributory negligence standards.
D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 4) advised against acting too quickly with the bill after she met with representatives of lawyers, insurers and bicyclists.