That’s what a new Los Angeles ordinance provides, in part. The ordinance also applies to behavior that’s clearly improper — physical assaults and intentional injuries (and attempts), threats to physically injure, as well as intentionally forcing or trying to force bicyclists off the road (all “because of, in whole or in part, the bicyclist’s status as a bicyclist”). Such behavior is already civilly actionable, if it causes damage. And likely all of it can lead to a ticket, if a police officer sees it. (The ordinance does not create new grounds for tickets or other prosecutions.)
But providing for a minimum of $1000 in liability even in the absence of damages (and treble damages when actual damages are present), as well as for reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs for prevailing plaintiffs but not prevailing defendants, does change matters quite a bit. A bicyclist can threaten to sue a driver for what the bicyclist perceives as an intentional distraction (or even an attempt at such distraction), and the driver will face strong pressure to settle: If the bicyclist persuades the court, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the driver was guilty, the driver would be on the hook for $1000 + attorney fees. If the bicyclist fails to persuade the court, the bicyclist wouldn’t have to pay the driver’s fees (at least unless a court finds the bicyclist’s claim was utterly frivolous).
And that’s especially so if the bicyclist was riding alongside a friend who would take the bicyclist’s side. Plus if some lawyers start to specialize in such matters, maybe because of their sympathies with fellow bicyclists plus an opportunity to get a modest fee, the asymmetry in plaintiffs’ favor would likely get even stronger. (I assume here that the plaintiffs would be able to track down the driver’s identity through the license plate number; this will cost money, whether for a records search or even a subpoena, if necessary, but that will just drive up the amount that the defendant might be on the hook for.)
I realize that bicyclists are in a great deal of peril on the roads, that a few drivers do deliberately try to injure bicyclists, and that more drivers act in ways that risk harming bicyclists. But my sense is that this ordinance is not a fair way of dealing with that problem.
Thanks to Dan Gifford for the pointer.