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Motorcycle Helmets: Can Non-Use of a Helmet Be Used as Evidence in a Personal Injury Case?

Benefits of Wearing a Motorcycle Helmet

The benefits of wearing a helmet while operating or riding as a passenger on a motorcycle are widely documented. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42% of the motorcyclists who were fatally injured in 2010 were not wearing helmets. While helmets saved the lives of 1,500 motorcycle operators and passengers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notes that 700 more lives could have been saved in 2010 if the riders were wearing helmets. In terms of the relationship between motorcycle helmet use and head injuries, a 2009 NHTSA study reported that 8.1% of non-helmeted motorcyclists suffered head injuries as a result of a collision compared to 5.3% of helmeted motorcyclists, and 16% of non-helmeted motorcyclists sustained mild/moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries, compared with less than 12% of the helmeted motorcyclists.

Motorcycle Helmet Legislation

In 1968, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a statute mandating that all motorcyclists wear helmets. In 2003, this statute was amended so that all persons 21 years of age or older who have been licensed to operate a motorcycle for not less than two full calendar years do not need to wear protective headgear while operating a motorcycle. When a motorcycle driver does not fall within the statute’s helmet requirements, the driver is under no duty to wear protective headgear because in Pennsylvania there is no common law duty to wear a helmet and it is not entirely clear whether the state’s courts would impose such a duty.

Courts are Split on the “Helmet Defense”

While NHTSA and other government reports certainly demonstrate that motorcycle helmets can save lives and reduce the severity of head injuries, the courts in Pennsylvania have not yet determined whether evidence demonstrating the non-use of a helmet is admissible at trial (the “helmet defense”); and if it is, how such evidence can be successfully utilized in the defense of a personal injury case. This means that in Pennsylvania one cannot accurately predict how the non-use of a motorcycle helmet at the time of the accident would bear on the outcome of the case, and whether it could lead to a potential comparative negligence defense.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that other state courts around the nation are split with respect to their rulings on the issue. Several state courts have held that evidence intended to prove helmet non-use is inadmissible at trial. See Hukill v. DiGregorio, 484 N.E.2d 795 (Ill. App. 3d 1985); Dare v. Sobule, 674 P.2d 960 (Colo. 1984); Rogers v. Frush, 257 Md. 233 (1970); Burgstahler v. Fox, 290 Minn. 495 (1971); McKinley v. Casson, 80 A.3d 618 (De. 2013); Kealoha v. County of Hawaii, 74 Haw. 308 (1993); State v. Eaton, 659 N.E.2d 232 (Ind. 1995). The rationales of the respective courts are varied. For example, both an Illinois appellate court and the Supreme Court of Colorado found that because each had previously disallowed evidence intended to prove the analogous seatbelt defense, they would do the same in the context of motorcycle helmets. Hukill, 484 N.E.2d at 1067-68; Dare, 674 P.2d at 962. Meanwhile, other courts more closely examined the “duty” element of the tort of negligence, holding that there is no duty to wear a motorcycle helmet when there is neither an applicable statute nor a common law duty mandating such an action. Rogers, 257 Md. at 239; Burgstahler, 290 Minn. at 496; McKinley, 80 A.3d at 626; Kealoha, 74 Haw. 320; Eaton, 659 N.E.2d at 236.

Contrastingly, several states have allowed the introduction of evidence demonstrating the non-use of a helmet. See Warfel v. Cheney, 157 Ariz. 424 (1988); Stehlik v. Rhoads, 253 Wis.2d 477 (2002); Halvorson v. Voeller, 336 N.W.2d 118 (N.D. 1983); Lenhart v. Basora, 100 So.3d 1177 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012); Dean v. Holland, 350 N.Y.S.2d 859 (Sup. Ct. 1973). One state court opined that in the comparative negligence context, disallowing evidence relating to the conduct of one of the parties at suit would prevent the court from conducting a thorough comparison – the main function of the comparative negligence doctrine. Lenhart, 100 So.3d at 1179. Most of these courts have found that this evidence is relevant to the issue of damages and the question of whether or not the use/non-use of a helmet was a substantial factor in the severity of the injuries. Warfel, 157 Ariz. at 427; Dean, 350 N.Y.S.2d at 862; Stehlik, 253 Wis.2d at 484; Halvorson, 336 N.W.2d at 118. The courts have held that the evidence is only to be considered in regards to the question of damages and not to liability; the logic is that the use of a helmet could affect the injuries suffered as a result of an accident, but has no bearing on who is responsible for causing the accident in the first place. Id. With regard to the question of duty, the above-cited courts did not necessarily impose an absolute common law duty on motorcycle riders. However, “there is no absolute guarantee that non-use of a helmet never can be found to be unreasonable.” Halvorson, 336 N.W.2d at 123. The question in the context of comparative negligence, therefore, is “whether or not in the exercise of ordinary care a person would have worn a helmet to avoid or mitigate any injuries he might sustain in an accident.” Id.

Although these court opinions were clear in permitting evidence of helmet non-use, they were unclear as to how the evidence was to be presented. In most of the cases, the parties contesting the admissibility of the evidence did so prior to trial, in the form of motions in limine. How the evidence was subsequently used, therefore, is unknown.

Helmet Defense Analogous to Seatbelt Defense

One sign that could indicate how Pennsylvania courts may treat the so-called “helmet defense” is how they have treated the seatbelt defense in the past. Pennsylvania state courts have held that evidence demonstrating that a motorist was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of an accident was inadmissible. See, e.g., Gaudio v. Ford Motor Co., 976 A.2d 524 (Pa. Super. 2009). However, the rulings by these courts have been supported by Pennsylvania statute. Id. at 535-36. A section of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code mandates that “[i]n no event . . . shall failure to use [a safety seat belt] system be admissible as evidence in the trial of any civil action.” 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4581(e). Unfortunately, there is no analogous Pennsylvania statute governing the admissibility of evidence regarding a motorcyclist’s failure to use of a helmet. Therefore, the state courts’ treatment of the seatbelt defense cannot be accurately used to predict how it would treat the helmet defense.

Although it is impossible to determine exactly how Pennsylvania courts will rule on this issue, we believe that that the more compelling and sound reasoning was put forth by the courts that allowed evidence supporting the helmet defense . Our firm will continue to closely monitor legal decisions in Pennsylvania and around the nation to gain a better indication of how the state courts may treat the helmet defense in personal injury cases.