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Motorist liability introduced in response to pipeline protests

A bill introduced by an oil patch lawmaker would provide an exemption for the driver of a motor vehicle if they unintentionally injured or killed a pedestrian obstructing traffic on a public road or highway.

“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian,” said Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, who admitted the bill is in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in southern Morton County.

He said a response, in the form of House Bill 1203, was needed after groups of protesters blocked or gathered close to roadways and caused problems as motorists tried to drive by.

“They’re not there for the protesters,” said Kempenich of public roadways as a staging point. “They’re intentionally putting themselves in danger."

Kempenich said his mother-in-law, on a few occasions, was traveling south of Mandan and came upon groups of protesters gathered on and near roadways.

He said, on one occasion, about 100 cars were parked along a road in Morton County and his mother-in-law was passing through and slowed down. He said at one point an individual jumped out in front of the vehicle and was waving a sign.

Kempenich said one should consider what might happen if someone panics when coming upon a group of people gathered along a public roadway. He said an unintentional tragedy may occur “if they’d have punched the accelerator rather than the brakes.”

No committee hearing has yet been set for HB1203. Kempenich said some adjustments may be needed to clarify language but called the bill a reasonable move even if it may rarely, if ever, be applicable to occurrences outside of the protests.

“Our involvement in this would be very minimal and limited,” North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson said of the agency’s involvement with HB1203.

Iverson said the highway patrol could provide information to the committee when HB1203 is heard, such as how frequently pedestrians are struck by motor vehicles on public roads and highways.

He didn’t have numbers readily available but estimated that the number of instances of pedestrians obstructing traffic on record likely was much less “prior to Dakota Access.”

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he wasn’t involved in HB1203 but lawmakers do need to weigh making potential changes in law enforcement capabilities in response to things such as the protests.

“The role of the Legislature is to work with the professionals,” Carlson said. “We won’t violate the right to peaceful protest."

(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at


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