City could ease litigation process for bicyclist harassment cases

The Berkeley City Council approved a referral that would make a civil course of action — the right that individuals have to sue each other for personal damages ­­and receive compensation — for bicyclists who are harassed by motorists on roads in the city.

The referral is based on an ordinance signed into law in Los Angeles in early September that gives bicyclists who are harassed by motorists the right to file a civil law suit and receive treble damages — measured as triple the cost of actual damages — no less than $1,000.

The recommendation was proposed by Councilmember Kriss Worthington and passed eight to one at the council meeting Tuesday night. The item will now be sent to the city attorney for review, which will take about six months, according to Worthington.

“A lot of times, for civil suits, there’s not attorney’s fees provisions,” said Judith Reel, deputy city attorney for Los Angeles. “If you haven’t suffered monetary loss that is very significant, no attorney is going to take on the case.”

From 1990 to 2000, there was a 15 percent increase in the number of Berkeley residents who commute to work by bike, and existing criminal and civil laws don’t prevent the unlawful harassment of bicyclists, according to the recommendation.

Worthington explained that he proposed the referral because he has heard from many Berkeley bicyclists who have been assaulted and harassed by motorists but do not have their cases dealt with because the district attorney is so busy with major crimes. These people are also often unable to find lawyers because their cases do not have civil courses of action, he said.

“It’s not changing the law about what people can do, but it is changing the way someone is assaulted or harassed — it’s changing the fact that they may be able to get a lawyer to help them,” Worthington said. “I think some of the council members were confused about this.”

Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan explained at the meeting that the enforcement would not be carried out by the city but through civil lawsuit by the person who is harassed.

At the meeting, some council members expressed concerns about the specifics of the referral.

“I don’t think we want to create a course of action and make it easier for someone to sue for treble damages,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, the one opposing vote, at the meeting. “That’s not really fair.

At the meeting, Mayor Tom Bates asked how the law would establish one person’s word versus the other.

“It has to constitute you being forced off the road, you being assaulted physically, or someone basically threatening you bodily harm, and it has to have been witnessed by multiple witnesses in order to have a credible amount of evidence in court,” said Christopher Kidd, who worked on the Los Angeles ordinance and recently moved to Berkeley to work with the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

“Civil causes of action only need to be proved by the majority of the evidence,” Reel said. “In the state, the case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Neither Kidd nor Reel was aware of any suits in Los Angeles that have been filed under the ordinance, and at the meeting, Worthington emphasized that the council was only discussing the referral, not adopting the law.

“Now the referral will go to the city attorney, who will look at the L.A. ordinance and evaluate whether or not it is possible for Berkeley to implement the same thing,” Worthington said. “Usually it takes about six months for the referral to come back from the city attorney.”

He said that the council will not know how much public support the referral has until the city attorney’s analysis is complete. He added that he is also working to get more bike lanes in the city but that doing so takes a lot of time and money.

“This is sort of a stop-gap measure in the meantime,” he said.