California law requires motorcycle operators and their passengers to wear a safety helmet when the motorcycle is operated on a public road. Helmets save lives. Personal injury lawyers encourage motorcyclists to wear helmets because we see the tragic head injuries that helmetless riders and passengers suffer when they are involved in collisions.
Motorcycle accident lawyers are often asked whether the failure to wear a helmet affects the amount of compensation a rider will recover in a personal injury claim. The answer depends on the circumstances.
Contributory negligence is a legal principle that limits an injury victim's recovery of compensation when the victim's conduct contributes to the victim's accident injuries. California's version of that principle is called comparative negligence.
In California, a jury is asked to compare the negligence of the party who is sued for negligence to the negligence of the party seeking compensation. For example, a motorcyclist might sue the driver of a car that made an unexpected left turn in front of the oncoming motorcycle, causing the motorcyclist to collide with the car. A jury might find that the driver of the car was 70% at fault for failure to yield to oncoming traffic and that the motorcycle rider was 30% at fault for failing to anticipate the left turn and to slow down or take evasive action to avoid the collision.
The jury is told to award compensation without considering the negligence of each party. The judge then reduces the jury's award in proportion to the negligence of the party seeking compensation. For example, assume that the jury awarded compensation of $50,000. If the jury finds that the motorcyclist bringing the compensation claim was 30% at fault, the judge will reduce compensation by 30%, resulting in an award of $35,000.
Contributory Negligence and Helmet Use
Courts across the country have taken different approaches to whether the failure to wear a helmet should be considered an act of contributory negligence. One view is that comparative negligence refers to negligence that causes the accident. Failing to wear a helmet will rarely contribute to an accident.
A competing view is that contributory negligence refers to negligence that causes the injury. Failing to wear a helmet might contribute to the motorcycle rider's injury.
California follows the latter view. California judges instruct juries that they should consider whether the plaintiff was negligent and, if so, whether the plaintiff's negligence was a substantial cause of his or her harm. That instruction would hold a plaintiff accountable for negligence that contributes either to the accident or to the injury.
While California's appellate courts have not definitively decided whether the failure to wear a helmet can be considered contributory negligence, the courts have decided that the failure to wear a seat belt can be an act of contributory negligence, provided that the defendant can prove that the failure to wear a seat belt contributed to the injury. The same reasoning would suggest that the failure to wear a motorcycle helmet can be an act of contributory negligence, but only if the party being sued can prove that the failure to wear a helmet contributed to the injury.
Proof of Contributory Negligence
In some motorcycle accident cases, the failure to wear a helmet will clearly make no difference. A motorcycle rider who broke an arm in a crash but had no other injuries cannot be deemed contributorily negligent for failure to wear a helmet because a helmet would not have protected the arm.
When a rider experiences a head injury, however, the question is more complicated. Helmets reduce the risk of a head injury, but they do not eliminate that risk. A significant percentage of motorcyclists who die from a head injury were wearing a helmet.
Brian injuries are usually caused when the brain collides with the skull. They can also be caused when the skull fractures, exposing the brain to a direct collision with pavement, a car, or some other surface. Helmets can cushion the impact and may prevent skull fractures, but they cannot prevent the brain from striking the skull when the rider's motion comes to a sudden halt. That's why football players sustain concussions despite wearing football helmets.
To reduce a motorcyclist's compensation, the driver who caused the accident must prove that the motorcyclist would not have been as severely injured if the rider had been wearing a helmet. That can be a difficult burden to meet. It's important to California personal injury lawyers (and to the injury victims they represent) that the burden is on the negligent driver to prove that failure to wear a helmet contributed to the injury. Motorcycle accident victims would be in a worse position if they had to prove that the same injury would have occurred even if they had worn a helmet.
To prove that the failure to wear a helmet worsened the injury, the defendant driver will need to call an expert witness. The motorcyclist can counter with opposing expert testimony. Often the experts cancel each other out. If the jury decides that the effect a helmet would have had on the injury is unknowable, the jury should not attribute any comparative negligence to the motorcycle rider based on the failure to wear a helmet.
California motorcycle lawyers encourage all riders to obey the law by wearing a helmet. When riders are injured in an accident caused by the driver of another vehicle, however, we work hard to maximize the injury victim's compensation, whether or not the rider was wearing a helmet.