As the coronavirus pandemic lockdown cloud fell over Washington, D.C., fewer car wrecks were supposed to be one of the silver linings. Yet, although the number of vehicle miles driven decreased during 2020, the number of fatal vehicle collisions in the United States rose. This figure shot up even more in 2021, to a fifteen-year high. In addition, many drivers picking up bad driving habits, such as driving while impaired and speeding, continue to drive up the fatality numbers.
Things like speeding and impaired driving usually indicate negligence or a lack of care. The principles of a negligence case are mostly the same in all fifty states. Criminal lawsuits punish offenders for their misdeeds. Negligence cases compensate the victims of these misdeeds. Furthermore, negligence cases force tortfeasors (negligent parties) to accept responsibility for the mistakes they make. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone should also accept responsibility for the mistakes they make.
While the principles of a negligence case are much the same everywhere, specific laws often vary state by state. States have expansive powers to make their laws, especially for injury claims. Furthermore, state laws in this area often change as the makeup of the population and state legislatures and courts change. As outlined below, D.C. is basically three states in one metropolitan area.
Laws change, but the role of an auto accident attorney in Washington, D.C. doesn't change. Auto Accident victims usually face sky-high medical bills, not to mention long-term pain and suffering. Victims need and deserve compensation for these things. A lawyer knows how to collect evidence and, more importantly, how to present that evidence in court. Furthermore, the insurance company has a team of lawyers working hard to protect its interests. Victims need the same thing.
Washington, D.C. Overview
In 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled her Vision Zero plan. This plan aimed to eliminate traffic collision deaths and serious injuries by 2024. Yet, despite the District's efforts, this plan has failed significantly. Annual traffic deaths and serious injuries have only fallen once since 2015. Furthermore, the fatal accident numbers are now trending in the opposite direction.
When politicians fail to protect people, Washington, D.C. auto accident attorneys must pick up the health and safety mantle. Usually, that means filing a claim for damages in court. But, as previously mentioned, while negligence principles are the same almost everywhere, the laws in specific jurisdictions vary. That's the case when it comes to the four elements of an ordinary negligence claim:
- Duty: In D.C., both commercial and noncommercial drivers usually have a duty of reasonable care. They must drive defensively, obey the rules of the road, and avoid accidents when possible. However, truck drivers, Uber drivers, and other commercial operators have a higher duty of care in many other jurisdictions.
- Breach: A breach of duty violates the standard of care. Most, but not all, driving errors are breaches of duty. Driving under the influence of caffeine is a good example. This conduct is illegal under Section 50–2206 of the D.C. code. However, most jurors don't think driving after drinking coffee is a breach of the duty of reasonable care.
- Cause: This element of an ordinary negligence claim has two parts. First, there must normally be a direct connection between the breach, which was discussed above, and the damages, which are discussed below. Second, the damages must be a foreseeable (possible) result of the breach. D.C.'s laws are unique in both areas, so attorneys should thoroughly review all accident claims.
- Damages: Usually, the victim must sustain a personal injury. The District has a no-fault insurance law. To file a legal claim, the victim's economic losses must exceed the PIP (personal injury protection) coverage limits, or the injury must be significantly impairing for at least 180 days. No-fault laws limit recovery to economic losses.
Once a victim/plaintiff establishes these four elements, which is a prima facie negligence case, the insurance company may present some negligence defenses. Once again, these defenses vary in different states.
Comparative fault, one of the most common car crash defenses, is a good illustration. This legal loophole shifts accident blame from the tortfeasor to the victim. For example, the insurance company might admit that its insured driver was distracted. Then, a lawyer blames the wreck on the victim's excessive speed. In these situations, a jury must split fault on a percentage basis based on the evidence.
Here's where things get complicated in D.C. Usually, the District is a pure contributory negligence jurisdiction. So, even if a victim is only 1 percent responsible for a wreck, the victim is ineligible for compensation.
However, if the victim was a pedestrian or bicyclist, Washington D.C. is a modified comparative fault jurisdiction with a 51 percent bar. If these victims are no more than 49 percent responsible, they are entitled to a proportionate share of damages.
The seat belt defense is another example. In some jurisdictions, victims who do not wear seat belts are responsible for their own injuries. But in D.C., evidence of seat belt non-use shall not be used as a basis for mitigating damages arising from civil liability. This same law, Section 5-1807 of the D.C. code, usually applies in motorcycle and bicycle helmet matters as well.
Negligence Per Se
A prima facie damages claim is much easier to make in a D.C. negligence per se claim. In the District of Columbia, drivers are liable for damages as a matter of law if:
- They violate a safety law, like the DUI law, and
- That violation substantially causes injury.
Many other states have a weaker negligence per se law. Safety law violations are only a presumption of negligence in these places.
However, even if the accident happened in D.C., and even if the tortfeasor clearly broke a safety law, the negligence per se doctrine doesn't always apply.
First, emergency responders must issue citations. Often, that does not happen, even after a catastrophic injury or fatal accident. Many police officers and other responders see car wrecks as civil disputes between insurance companies. They feel that if they issue citations, they are taking sides. They don't want to do that.
On a related note, safety laws vary in different places. Speed limits are a good example. Several years ago, the federal government repealed the 55mph universal speed limit law. Individual places, including individual cities, now have significant discretion to set their own speed limits, especially on interstate highways.
Cell phone laws vary significantly as well. D.C. has a hands-free law. It is generally illegal to hold and use a cell phone while driving. This law varies in different parts of the District; parts of the D.C. metro area are in different states where different laws could apply.
Additionally, as mentioned, the safety violation must have substantially caused injury. So, comparative fault defense is still available. Other negligence defenses, like assumption of the risk, sudden emergency, and last clear chance, might be available as well. All these defenses are roughly similar to a comparative fault, at least in principle.
Frequently, compensation is higher in negligence per se claims. That's because, to many jurors, a safety law violation is evidence that the tortfeasor prized their convenience more than the health and safety of other people on the road.
We mentioned two of the three categories of available negligence compensation (economic and noneconomic losses) above. The amount of that compensation and the source of the funds could vary in different accidents and different jurisdictions.
An obscure legal doctrine that varies in different jurisdictions, the collateral source rule, often affects the number of compensatory damages in a car wreck claim. Frequently, a collateral source, like a health insurance company, pays part of the damages in a car wreck claim, like medical bills.
In Washington, D.C., collateral source payments are inadmissible in court. So, if the claimants insurance company pays half of their $50,000 hospital bill, the tortfeasor, in this case, is still responsible for the full $50,000 amount.
Punitive damages are the third possible category. If a Washington, D.C. car accident lawyer proves that the tortfeasor intentionally disregarded a known risk by clear and convincing evidence, these additional damages are available.
Note that clear and convincing evidence is a higher burden of proof than the one in an ordinary negligence or negligence per se claim. Clear and convincing is usually the standard of proof in child custody cases between the state and the alleged negligent parents.
Many jurisdictions limit the number of punitive damages. A few jurisdictions even limit the amount of compensatory damages. But there are no such limits in D.C. on any type of damage awards. The jury, as the factfinder, has almost exclusive control in this area.
As for the source of compensation, the vicarious liability (third party responsibility) laws vary in different jurisdictions. These rules hold third parties, who had nothing to do with the accident itself, responsible for damages in some cases. That's because some entities or people have the power to prevent car wrecks from happening.
The District of Columbia, like most other jurisdictions, has a dram shop law. This law states that some alcohol providers, like private clubs and bars, are responsible for car accident damages if they knowingly provide alcohol to an intoxicated patron. Evidence of intoxication at the point of sale usually includes physical symptoms, like bloodshot eyes and slurred speech, as well as the number of drinks the person has consumed at that establishment.
Individual vicarious liability varies in different states as well. This difference usually comes up in negligent entrustment matters. If an owner knowingly loans a vehicle to an incompetent driver who causes a wreck, the owner is vicariously liable for damages, at least in some states.
D.C.'s law on this point is rather complex. The District has not adopted the family purpose doctrine. Under this doctrine, family members presumptively use a family car for family purposes, so negligent entrustment is easier to prove. However, under D.C. law, the driver is presumably an owner's agent. That's not exactly the same thing, but it is close.
Much of the D.C. metro area is technically in Maryland. Unfortunately, this area of the Old Line State is known for a high number of vehicle collisions. There are more fatal accidents in Prince Geroge's County, basically northeast Washington, D.C. than any other county in Maryland.
The elements of a prima facie ordinary negligence claim are the same in Maryland as they are in the District of Columbia. However, the laws on each of these elements often vary slightly, as follows:
- Duty: Noncommercial motorists have a duty of reasonable care, which was discussed above. A Commercial driver in Maryland, even one who is just passing through, usually has a duty to use the utmost degree of care, skill, and diligence in everything that concerns its passenger's safety. This duty includes not only driving but also things like pick-up and dropoff location.
- Breach and Cause: There are no special Maryland laws on these points, so the D.C. laws usually apply here.
- Damages: Maryland is a tort state, which means it does not have a no-fault insurance law. Any car wreck claim, even a fender-bender, could be the basis for an ordinary negligence or negligence per se claim. So, all these victims are eligible for compensation for their economic and noneconomic losses.
As for negligence defenses, like the District of Columbia, Maryland is a pure contributory negligence jurisdiction. Any fault on the part of the victim, no matter how insignificant, torpedoes a damage claim. So, a Maryland auto accident lawyer must usually convince the judge that the defense cannot be used. To return to the previous example, there's a big difference between speeding five mph and 15mph over the limit. There are no comparative fault exceptions in Maryland for special kinds of accidents, like bicycle or pedestrian accidents.
Maryland's seat belt defense law is also much like the law in the District of Columbia. Although the Old Line State has a very broad seat belt requirement, evidence of seat belt non-use, and by extension bicycle and motorcycle helmet non-use, is inadmissible for most purposes, including damages purposes, in civil trials.
Negligence Per Se
In Maryland, tortfeasors who violate safety laws and cause crashes are liable for damages as a matter of law. Furthermore, like D.C., Maryland has a hands-free cell phone law. Additionally, motorists under 18 cannot use any such device while driving, even a hands-free cell phone.
Maryland courts have used the collateral source rule since 1899. There is a strong policy in most states that a tortfeasor shouldn't receive a financial windfall because a victim planned well and bought insurance.
The Old Line State does not recognize the family purpose doctrine and it does not have a dram shop law. So, vicarious liability is usually unavailable in alcohol-related wrecks or in negligent entrustment wrecks.
Downtown Washington, D.C.
This part of town has a disproportionate number of pedestrians, bicyclists, e-scooter riders, and other non-drivers, especially during certain times of the year. So, these kinds of accidents are more common in Downtown Washington than they are in some other parts of town.
Speed is usually the most important factor, by far, in such wrecks, at least in terms of the victim fatality rate. For example, in a vehicle-on-pedestrian accident, the pedestrian death rate is less than 10 percent if the tortfeasor was traveling less than 25mph. The fatality rate skyrockets to 75 percent at impact speeds above 50mph.
Downtown Washington is entirely within the D.C. lines. So, the same laws apply, at least formally. Informally, downtown D.C. police are usually a little more strict when it comes to enforcing traffic laws. So, negligence per se claims is a little more common in downtown wrecks than they are in other parts of the metro area.
One reason for the high number of pedestrian and other non-motorist accidents in downtown is the significant number of tourists and other visitors downtown. Many of these people are unfamiliar with the formal and informal rules of the road in this part of the country. Things are different in Georgetown, which is a primarily residential area. Most people on the roads are locals.
But Georgetown is not significantly safer than downtown. Frequently, motorists, who are driving the same routes they drive pretty much every day develop a false sense of security. They do not actively watch for unexpected hazards, like jaywalking pedestrians. A slightly delayed reaction usually has tragic consequences for victims.
In general, northern Virginia is not as densely populated as other parts of the D.C. metro area. That's especially true the closer one gets to Richmond and other such areas. However, the Old Dominion is no safer for motorists. Virginia has one of the highest vehicle wreck fatality rates in the country.
Virginia's ordinary negligence laws are much like Maryland's ordinary negligence laws in many ways. Like Uber and taxi drivers, common carriers have a duty of utmost care in the Old Dominion. So, it is easier for a Washington, D.C. auto accident lawyer to establish negligence, or a lack of care, in these situations. Additionally, in terms of the damages element, Virginia does not have a no-fault law.
This similarity continues regarding insurance company defenses. Virginia is a pure contributory negligence state which bars recovery if the victim was even a tiny bit responsible for the wreck. Additionally, motorcycle helmets, seat belts, and bicycle helmets non-use are generally inadmissible for most purposes in Virginia courts.
Negligence Per Se
Virginia is a negligence per se state with a hands-free cell phone law. Subject to any available defenses, tortfeasors are liable for car wreck damages as a matter of law if they violate a safety law and that violation substantially causes injury. There are no other cell phone rules in Virginia.
Virginia's collateral source rule is similar to Maryland's collateral source rule. Additionally, the collateral source rule in Virginia specifically applies to attorney-negotiated reductions. Remember Alex and his $50,000 in medical expenses? Let's change the facts a bit. Assume Alex's Washington, D.C. auto accident lawyer negotiates with Alex's doctor and reduces the medical expenses to $40,000. When the case goes to court, their medical expenses were, for all purposes, $50,000. So, they might be able to retain the additional $10,000. Virginia does not have a dram shop law, and Virginia courts have explicitly renounced the family purpose doctrine.
To find out your legal options and how much compensation you might be entitled to, reach out to a Washington, D.C., car accident lawyer.