Photo by Pedal_Power_Pete on Flickr.
A man named Kevin Washington was riding his bike on 19th Street NW toward M Street NW. As far as anyone knows, he was obeying every traffic law. He was in the street; he was in the right lane; he wasn’t speeding.
A trash truck was in the middle lane, the one to his left. Suddenly, it turned across his path and hit him.
In a subsequent lawsuit, DC’s highest court ruled that even with all of these facts, he still couldn’t get any compensation from the truck driver’s insurance, because he “was aware of the truck,” and should have known that “when the truck reached M Street on a green light and proceeded into the intersection, it would either go straight ahead or turn onto M Street.”
“The bicyclist, for his own safety, was obliged to pay close attention to the movements of the truck, and to anticipate the possibility that it might turn right, toward the bicycle.”
In other words, it’s person’s fault if he gets hit while on a bike, even if he is doing nothing wrong, just because he should have realized that there was some chance another vehicle could have hit him.
This colossally unjust ruling was from the late 1980s, but insurance companies have been using the same principle in denying claims to this day. Shane Farthing posted a 2014 letter from Geico denying compensation to another person riding a bike for “failing to keep a proper lookout” when a driver veered into the bike lane.
This wouldn’t matter in most states. But DC has a “contributory negligence” rule, along with only four states (including Maryland and Virginia). There, even the slightest fault from a person biking or walking (or driving) makes him or her absolutely ineligible to collect any money at all from the driver’s insurance. And, as the court case above shows, courts have decided that even basically no fault is still at least a tiny bit of fault.
On Tuesday, the DC Council will consider a bill to end this phenomenally unjust law. Instead, if a person on a bike or on foot isn’t more than 50% at fault, he or she can still get compensation.
Two weeks ago, the bill was supposed to come up for a vote, but a last-minute concern from Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5) derailed it (de-sidewalked it?) It’s important for the DC Council to pass this bill now; an earlier version also fell apart at the last minute two years ago.
The insurance industry is fighting it — little surprise, since right now they have a law that lets them not actually do anything about some serious injuries. And AAA Mid-Atlantic is fighting it, too; it’s an insurer as well as a driving lobby organization. And in contrast to many other AAAs around the country, our local chapter lacks the kind of humanity that would yield basic empathy toward those seriously injured and unable to get their medical bills paid.
Please ask the DC Council to change this law immediately using the form below. Thank you!