Jikaiah Stevens was left with more than just massive injuries — which include permanent brain damage — after being struck by a car at a crosswalk. A $141,760.24 medical bill now follows around the San Francisco hairstylist and photographer.
The driver at fault had little to no assets, so all Stevens can receive is $15,000 — the state minimum liability to cover bodily injury or death. That figure became state law four decades ago and remains the minimum today.
Stevens’ lawyer, Anthony Label, who took the case pro bono, said situations in which a victim is hit by a driver with no assets to sue for are “very common.” The victims simply end up with the state minimum.
In the 1970s, $15,000 went a lot further than it does today. With inflation, that figure should now be called “fender-bender responsibility,” Label said.
He, like others, said an increase is needed.
“We just have to be careful because when we take stands like that, we get some really powerful forces to come attack us and oppose us on it — insurance companies, among others,” Label said.
Enacted in 1974 when the average new car cost $4,440, California Vehicle Code 16056 dictated that drivers need to have insurance with $15,000 to cover bodily injury or death to one person in a motor vehicle accident, $30,000 to cover two or more people and $5,000 to cover property damage.
California is one of only seven states in the U.S. — the others are Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — with limits that low, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. Only Florida has lower minimums, at $10,000, $20,000 and $10,000, respectively. Alaska and Maine have the highest at $50,000, $100,000 and $25,000.
Stevens, 31, said many people she has talked to about the $15,000 — which she has yet to receive — did not know the amount would be so little.
“Everyone is shocked that it’s that low because everyone knows that $15,000 doesn’t cover much,” she said. “I think it’s a crime of its own — especially for how much our medical world costs.”
Furthermore, since 1999, California has set limits even lower for low-income drivers — $10,000 for bodily injury to an individual, $20,000 for two or more injured people and $3,000 for property damage.
John Feder, president of Consumer Attorneys of California, an organization of about 3,100 attorneys promoting increased safety for Californians, said the policy behind mandatory insurance is “perfectly sound” in that people who get hurt should be made whole after the accident. But, he added, the state minimum coverage “is way too low and it makes that goal impossible.”
“The law should be updated to reflect the economic reality of 2014,” he said.
Feder said his organization has been meeting with groups that represent low-income drivers and insurance companies, which have traditionally opposed an increase in the minimums, to hopefully move toward raising the limits next year, if not this year.
Michael Gunning, vice president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, said his group could not state a position on the matter, but voiced the concerns of those against an increase.
“The challenges that we’ve talked about are the cost and the impact on low-income drivers and a down economy,” he said. “I just don’t know if that could be done in this Legislature.”
Other groups have been more adamantly against an increase.
In February 2013, the Association of California Insurance Companies said raising the state’s financial responsibility limit from $15,000 for an individual to $30,000 would mean paying more for coverage, and that would “negatively impact” roughly one-third of insured drivers.
As of 2011, the estimated population of uninsured motorists in California was 15 percent — higher than the 13.8 percent nationwide average, according to the Insurance Research Council.
The average bodily injury in California is $12,788, just below the limit. The Association of California Insurance Companies concluded that “[a]ny proposal to raise the [financial responsibility] limits should be defeated — keeping costs down should be the most significant consideration.”
Mark Sektnan, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies, added, “You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the trade-off to make it more expensive? Do more people decide not to get auto insurance and increase the risk of uninsured motorists?’”
No legislation to change the minimum financial responsibility has been introduced in Sacramento in the past few years, according to California Department of Insurance spokesman Patrick Storm.
A LOCAL FOCUS
On the local level, following a year with the most pedestrian fatalities since 2007, pedestrian and bicycle advocacy groups have focused on pushing the Vision Zero plan to eliminate pedestrian fatalities within 10 years. While some city agencies have adopted the plan, it remains a vision that needs funding to become a reality.
After learning about Stevens’ situation with the $15,000, Walk San Francisco Executive Director Nicole Schneider reached out to California Walks. The statewide pedestrian safety organization is pushing to expand the definition of a victims’ compensation fund to include pedestrian victims injured while crossing the roadway when they have the right of way.
State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, sent California Walks’ proposal to the Legislative Counsel to translate it into a bill, but it has run into a roadblock: The fund was initially set up for victims of crime.
State vehicle code categorizes injuring someone while failing to yield as an infraction, so California Walks is exploring replacing that with reckless driving since that’s a misdemeanor, said Deputy Director Tony Dang. The deadline to find a sponsor and introduce the bill is Feb. 21.
“It’s a huge disappointment because it’s extremely visceral — when a driver is not yielding we think it should be a crime,” Dang said. “Most incidents that relate to pedestrians and bicyclists are not crimes, they’re infractions, so I think that has a huge bearing on how law enforcement then chooses to enforce laws to protect vulnerable road users.”
The Police Department announced at a Jan. 16 hearing on pedestrian fatalities that it would begin issuing citations to parties at fault in an accident that results in an injury after not doing so for years. The policy applies retroactively for a year, so the driver who hit Stevens received a ticket for failure to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk, said Cmdr. Mikail Ali, who works with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
“We’re going through approximately 4,000 collision reports so we’re not done at this point, and more importantly it’s about moving forward,” Ali said. “We’re hoping that with this additional enforcement that we’re going to see people’s behavior change.”
THE AFTERMATH FOR STEVENS
For Stevens, life changed Sept. 26 as she was walking to work and a driver hit her at Bush and Taylor streets, a block away from her studio apartment. She lost her sense of taste and smell, and permanently has a piece of chipped bone in the back of her brain.
In order to keep her apartment, she’s recently had to return to work at the hair salon despite chronic back pain. And she uses some money earned for massage parlors “because I just can’t function without it.”
Stevens was not insured at the time of the collision and relies on Healthy San Francisco for her care.
In between physical therapy and counseling sessions, Stevens has committed to working with Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition on initiatives and has become a face for pedestrian-vehicle victims through a short documentary her friends created. Injury prevention continues to be the groups’ focus, and increasing the state liability minimum may remain on the back burner unless an organized effort is initiated.
“Right now I can’t organize something on my own,” Stevens said. “Because I can’t even organize my own life.”
How auto insurance works:
California insurance requires bodily injury and property damage liability
Other states also require uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage
The total cost of pedestrian injuries in San Francisco was $75.8 million from 2004-08
Approximately 76 percent ($56.7 million) of that was paid for through Medicare, MediCal and patients themselves
Conversely, 24 percent ($17.6 million) was paid for by private insurance
The minimum amount billed directly to an uninsured victim was $5,143 and the maximum was $505,952
Sources: Property Casualty Insurers Association of America; San Francisco Injury Center for Research and Prevention
To help Stevens with her medical bills, click here to visit her fundraising site.