LA Lawsuit Bait (updated)

Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa has on his desk legislation that will empower bicyclists and their lawyers to go after motorists in a lawsuit gambit that is all upside and no downside. Motorists, meanwhile, have no upside, only a downside. A KPCC Radio report explains:

This week, the Los Angeles City Council approved a new ordinance with tough measures against drivers who harass bicyclists. It prohibits motorists from distracting, threatening or assaulting cyclists. Moreover, it awards a minimum liability of $1,000, even in the absence of damages, plus lawyer fees for successful complainants. However, if the driver wins the case, the ordinance does not provide for his or her legal fees

Kevin Roderick of LA Observed covers the heated discussion that broke out over Los Angeles's public radio airwaves yesterday. KCRW and KPCC are both public broacasting entities:

The L.A. culture war between drivers and bicyclists was in full view this morning on KPCC's "Airtalk." The focus was the City Council's new ordinance allowing a bicyclist to take a free legal shot at a driver if the rider feels harassed or inordinately distracted. The ordinance, which is awaiting Mayor Villaraigosa's signature, tries to correct the disadvantage that many cyclists feel on L.A. streets by giving them a pretty big legal leg up.

Constitutional scholar and blogger Eugene Volokh, who called the law vague and just plain unfair, said in practice it means drivers could start getting lawyer letters threatening thousands of dollars in potential costs for a minor encounter they don't even recall - and will feel coerced to settle for $2,000 or more to avoid greater exposure. That's because the pending law, sponsored by Councilman Bill Rosendahl, gives riders a lot of incentive to sue, or just threaten to sue. If the cyclist wins, he or she gets a minimum of $1,000 from the driver, plus their legal and court fees, and triple damages if any are actually proven. If the driver wins, he or she gets nothing - and has to eat their own costs.

If the Mayor signs this into law, drivers in Los Angeles can expect a wave of threatened lawsuits and shakedowns.  Would this cause a massive change in motorist behavior?  Certainly among some.  But how long will it take before everyone knows of somebody who got shaken down for a couple of thou?  Tongues will wag, people will hear, and consciousness will be raised. Drivers outnumber bicyclists, and when they learn they now face legal liabilities regardless of their side of the story, we can expect the momentum for tort reform to take a jump in the City of the Angels.

I almost hope he signs it, even though it is a terrible law.

Mike Baehr adds:

This is indeed a novel law, so we have yet to see how it will play out, but it is sorely needed in Los Angeles.  The problem is ideas precisely like what was discussed on the radio, that there is somehow some sort of "culture war" between bicyclists and automobiles, as if we earnestly believe we're going to somehow supplant the automobile through some combination of legal subterfuge and deliberate moving violations.

There is no such war.  It is, however, a handy meme for the media, and any time a motorist-bicyclist conflict makes the local news, this tired line is typically drug out.  The truth is that bicyclists and motorists are both, most of the time, trying to get somewhere.  If you find me on my bicycle on the street at 9 in the morning, it is because I am on my way to work.  The same applies to just about everyone around me who is driving.  My riding a bicycle is not some salvo in the glorious Trotskyist vanguard which will eliminate the private automobile.  It would be a rather foolish thing to attempt, given that they're surrounded by 2 tons of steel and I'm a piece of meat on an aluminum frame.

The problem is that some people do believe they are participating in such a war, and typically it is motorists.  I have had the uniquely unpleasant experience of drivers trying to run me off the road to teach me a "lesson".  Los Angeles has it particularly bad in this department.  Harassment of cyclists by people in cars in the southland is endemic.  Granted, it's a very few bad apples doing it, but it has a remarkably chilling effect on people riding, and has sent many to the hospital or an early death.  Witness the (very well-publicized) Christopher Thompson case, where a motorist angry that he was being "slowed down" by two bicyclists (he was actually speeding, and wanted to unsafely pass them so he could speed even more) swung around them and jammed on his breaks, sending them through his rear windshield.

In his arrogance, he confessed to the police on the scene that he was trying to "teach them a lesson".  He is now rotting in jail.  For every Dr. Thompson arrested, there are 5 who aren't, and for every police report made that results in a prosecution or even a ticket, there are 20 others where the police automatically take the side of the motorist.  This law could change that.

People like to project all sorts of malfeasance on the part of bicyclists who are mostly just trying to get somewhere alive.  They like to assume that every time one of us runs a red light or a stop sign (how many times have I seen a car do that yesterday alone?) that we are trying to send some message, or we are being "arrogant" or "entitled" or any number of charges.  It's funny how quickly that attitude changes once someone gets on a bike and realizes the traffic dynamic is more than just a bit different.  Some moving violations actually make sense, for your own safety even.  None of us (well very few, and they typically learn their lesson early) are trying to send a message to cars or disrupt traffic, because death can surely result.

And I doubt there's going to be a flood of eager cyclists launching spurious lawsuits against innocent motorists.

It's a good law.

Thought you might want to hear another perspective