“Dooring” accidents occur when parked motorists open the car door into oncoming cycling traffic without looking and a cyclists collides with the door. This can result in terrible injuries, but dooring cases are very difficult for a number of reasons. The cyclist will argue that he was riding at an appropriate speed and a safe distance from the parked cars. The motorist will argue that he looked before opening the car door, but the cyclist came out of nowhere, or failed to exercise caution.
Both sides of the argument may have legal support. DC Municipal Code Title 18 (2214.4) prohibits opening a car door into traffic unless it can be done safely. However, DC Municipal Code Title 18, (1201.2) calls for bicyclists to ride as far right as practicable. In Welch v. Kovoulakis, 2009 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 425668 (D.C. Sup. Ct. March 12, 2011), Sandra Welch was riding past Libby Kovoulakis’ car when Kovoulakis allegedly opened her door into traffic without looking and knocked Ms. Welch off her bike. Kouvolakis contended that Welch drove into her car door and disputed that she had opened it while Welch was passing by. Welch claimed $11,680.00 in past medical bills and $20,000 in lost income, but the jury only awarded $7,500.00.
Welch is a classic example of a dooring case, but the plaintiff was very lucky to prevail in her dooring case because of contributory negligence. Contributory negligence is a legal doctrine recognized in very few states (including DC, Maryland and Virginia), which bars a plaintiff from recovering for injuries if the plaintiff was even 1% at fault. Thus, plaintiffs alleging that a driver opened a car door into their bike path must overcome several contributory defense theories: (1) they were riding too close to cars; (2) they were riding too fast to avoid car doors; (3) they were not keeping close attention to their surroundings, etc.
In Virginia, dooring cases may become easier. Virginia State Senator Chap Peterson recently presented SB 117, the Dooring Bill, which requires drivers to wait for a reasonable opportunity to open their vehicle door on the side of oncoming traffic. Violations are punishable by a fine of up to $50. The bill was reported out by a 10-2 vote and passed by the senate in a 24-16 vote on February 20, 2016. This may allow plaintiffs to bring a negligence per se claim. Negligence per is a doctrine whereby an act is considered negligent because it violates a statute. If it becomes law, the Dooring Bill could support a claim for negligence per se. This week, the Dooring Bill just made it out of committee and will be on the house floor for a final vote. The Virginia Bicycling Federation has an excellent article about the measure.