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Cyclists May Have To Wait Until Next Year To Change Contributory Negligence Law

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Under current D.C. law, if a cyclist is even partially responsible for an accident with a driver, they cannot recover costs from insurance companies.
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Under current D.C. law, if a cyclist is even partially responsible for an accident with a driver, they cannot recover costs from insurance companies.

Time is running out on an effort to change a D.C. law that prevents pedestrians and bicyclists from being compensated for injuries sustained in traffic crashes.

A D.C. Council committee has postponed until Wednesday a key vote on a bill by Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that would end what’s called contributory negligence: injured bikers and pedestrians can’t receive any compensation if they're found to be even the slightest bit responsible for the crash. Wells says Wednesday may be the last chance to advance his bill this year.

"I’ve been on the phone with two of the committee members who say, 'Let’s talk further about this,'" Wells says.

To bicyclist Dave Salovesh, you don't need to be a legal scholar to understand what’s wrong with “contributory negligence.”

"There is no chance of recovery. I have to be very defensive. I am more defensive than any driver I know. Because I know the consequences are so much worse on me. The chances of me recovering are so diminished by the current laws," he says.

The current law is set up so that if a bike rider is found to be even the slightest bit at fault in a traffic crash, he or she has little chance of being compensated for injuries. Insurance claims in such cases are routinely denied by the driver's auto insurance company.

"As long as the law is wrong like this those people are denied access to compensation and justice, and we are hoping to get this law changed," says Shane Farthing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Changing the law has proven difficult. The bill drawn up by Wells has been opposed by the city's insurance lobby. Wayne McOwen with the District of Columbia Insurance Federation explains that insurers do not want to create another class of protected victims. "Well, we just don't think this legislation is the right way to go, creating a separate class — this vulnerable class — for liability," he says.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) opposes the bill in its current form, telling WAMU 88.5 the legislation in its current form compromises crash victims’ ability to be fully compensated if they are injured by more than one person.

If the next round of talks cannot produce a consensus among those who now oppose Wells’ legislation in its current form, the bill may have to be re-introduced in January.

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