Is this really necessary?

Published 6:31 pm Friday, August 18, 2017

There’s a bill under discussion in the North Carolina General Assembly right now that is causing some controversy. House Bill 330 was approved by representatives in the spring, but it has yet to be considered by the Senate. Gov. Roy Cooper is calling to let the bill die because it “grants immunity from liability to motorists who strike protesters.”

Given the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, a week ago, this bill appears to be exactly what North Carolina does not need. Last Saturday, a man attending the alt-right, or white supremacist, “Unite the Right” rally rammed his vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.

In the case of HB 330, appearances can be deceiving. Yes, the bill was created in response to protests sparked by the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in the fall of 2016, when protesters blocked interstate highways and other major roads in Charlotte. But the bill does not grant immunity to drivers who hit protesters with their vehicles. Instead, it provides legal immunity from personal-injury lawsuits to drivers who use “due care” in trying to navigate protesters, according to legal experts. What it would not do is apply to drivers who “willfully or wantonly” injure protesters or someone who is being criminally prosecuted for doing so; nor would it apply to drivers who injure someone who has a permit to protest in the street. It does not impact the legal consequences for people who weaponize their vehicles by running protesters down.

This is an untested law, so no one knows exactly how it would affect personal-injury lawsuits. Right now, in North Carolina, if a defendant in such a case (the driver) proves that the plaintiff (the injured) bears any amount of responsibility for their injuries, the plaintiff will lose the case. With this law in place, “willful and wanton” injury would have to be proven by the plaintiff.

HB 330 would not make hitting protesters legal or automatically allow drivers to get off scot-free on the civil side of things. However, it could very well give drivers ignorant of the bill’s purpose the impression that it’s okay to hit a protester in the street — they won’t be prosecuted.

They will, and they will continue to be even if HB 330 passes. Assault will remain a crime; a vehicle will remain a deadly weapon. Add the intent to injure and the result will still be a felony, which is pretty effective at proving “willful and wanton.”

The question that arises, however, is: is this law really necessary? Is adding unproven-in-court protections against personal-injury lawsuits worth the risk of a single person misinterpreting the meaning of the law?

While Gov. Cooper’s claim is exaggerated, the bill is ripe for misinterpretation, given the events in Charlottesville.