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

Below is an update to our recent article on admissibility of helmet non-use in personal injury cases.

Pennsylvania Courts Continue to Have Differing Views on Admissibility of Helmet Non-Use

While National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) studies and reports have repeatedly documented that motorcycle helmets reduce the severity of head injuries, Pennsylvania courts still have differing views as to the admissibility of helmet non-use at trial. In 2012, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania reasoned that just because there was a law providing that a person need not wear a helmet when operating a motorcycle, this did not mean that the evidence of the lack of helmet use was inadmissible. In contrast to this decision, also in 2012, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas reasoned that whether the decedent was wearing a helmet was irrelevant and therefore inadmissible. Although it is still difficult to tell how Pennsylvania courts will continue to rule on the issue of admissibility of non-use of motorcycle helmets, there is now a clearer answer because of these two holdings and other recent state opinions.

Bieber v. Nace Decision

In 2012, The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania held that evidence of lack of helmet use is not automatically inadmissible. Bieber v. Nace, No. 1:10-CV-0718, 2012 WL 727631, at *6 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 6, 2012). In Bieber v. Nace, plaintiff and defendant were in a motor vehicle accident in which plaintiff swerved into oncoming traffic and struck defendant, an unhelmeted motorcyclist. Id. at *1.  Plaintiff suffered serious injuries including amputation of the leg. Id.  However, at no time does the court indicate whether plaintiff suffered head injuries. Plaintiff filed a motion in limine and asserted that because Pennsylvania law does not require a helmet to be used and because there was no medical evidence showing a causal link between plaintiff’s injuries and lack of helmet use, the evidence of such should be precluded. Id. at *6. Defendant, however, explained that the injuries were in fact “affected” by plaintiff’s lack of helmet use and therefore this evidence was relevant to determine damages. Id. Plaintiff’s motion to preclude the evidence of his lack of helmet was “conditionally granted.” Id.  In deciding plaintiff’s motion, the court wrote that just because Pennsylvania does not require the wearing of a helmet while operating a motor vehicle, does not mean that whether the motorcyclist was helmeted is automatically irrelevant. 75 PA. Cons.Stat. § 3525(d); Id.  Rather, the court held that under the analysis of Federal Rule of Evidence 401 which provides that evidence is relevant if: (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence, and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action, and Federal Rule of Evidence 402 which provides that relevant evidence is admissible and irrelevant evidence is not admissible, it is defendant’s burden to come forward with facts which show plaintiff’s injuries, in whole or in part, are causally related to the choice of not wearing a helmet. If there is no causal connection and the non-use of a helmet is introduced, that evidence becomes prejudicial to plaintiff.

Petti v. Riverview Golf and Country Club, Inc. Decision

In contrast to Middle District of Pennsylvania Court, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas in Northampton County held that there was an absolute prohibition of introducing helmet use or non-use. In Petti v. Riverview Golf and Country Club, Inc., defendant collided with both a motorcyclist and his passenger. 2012 WL 12523569, at 1. Both the driver and the passenger received multiple injuries as a result and died later that evening. Id. The court used Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence 401 and 402 (which are identical to Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 402) to grant plaintiffs’ motion to preclude reference to both decedents’ lack of helmet use. Id. at 9-10. The court agreed with plaintiffs’ reasoning that under P.A. R.E 401 and 402 the evidence was irrelevant and further, the decedents had no duty under Pennsylvania law to wear helmets. Id. at 9. Defendant argued that it was too early to grant a motion to preclude this subject evidence because it was premature to determine whether use of a helmet was relevant to decedents’ conscious pain and suffering. Id. at 10. The court held, however, that it was not the wearing of helmets that was relevant in determining decedents’ pain and suffering, but rather, the nature of the injuries they sustained and whether decedents were conscious at all after the accident. Id. The court’s reasoning was that since there is no duty for a motorcyclist or a passenger of a motorcyclist to wear a helmet while in operation of said motorcycle, the evidence of non-use is irrelevant and therefore inadmissible.

Court Decisions from Other Jurisdictions

Albeit few, there have been recent state court decisions from other jurisdictions regarding the admissibility of motorcycle helmet use at trial. For example, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals held motorcycle helmet non-use was inadmissible. Johnston v. Stacy, 2016 OK CIV APP 56, ¶ 1, 380 P.3d 908, 911.  In Johnston v. Stacy, defendant’s vehicle and plaintiff’s motorcycle collided. Id. at  909. Similar to the absence of guidance in Pennsylvania courts discussed in our earlier article, here, the court explained that in Oklahoma there was lack of common law regarding this issue and the “only statement from the Legislature on this matter [wa]s its repeal of the law requiring helmet use.” Id. at 910. The court further explained that, while jurisdictions elsewhere are split on the issue of admission of motorcycle helmet non-use, there is “no state in which. . .  helmets are not mandatory that allow the general admission of evidence of helmet non-use.” Id. at 910-11. Because of the absence of common law and the guidance from states where helmets are not required, the Oklahoma court stated that “such evidence” was inadmissible. Id. at 911. The Supreme Court of Delaware also held that because there was no statutory or common law duty to wear a helmet while using a motorcycle, the failure to wear one was not relevant. McKinley v. Casson, 80 A.3d 618, 626 (Del. 2013). In McKinley, plaintiff’s motorcycle collided into the back of defendant’s vehicle and plaintiff, who was not wearing a helmet, sustained “serious injuries.” Id. at 621.

Future of the Helmet Defense is Still Undecided

While it is still unclear as to how Pennsylvania courts will continue to rule concerning the admissibility of motorcycle helmet use, it seems that the trend is moving toward inadmissibility of this evidence. Although the Middle District of Pennsylvania Court did not hold that the evidence is automatically inadmissible, it did hold that the evidence will be inadmissible unless defendant can prove a causal connection between the lack of helmet use and plaintiff’s injury. A Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, along with the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals and The Supreme Court of Delaware, held that because there is no requirement for the motorcyclist to wear a helmet, the failure of such is irrelevant at trial.  Our firm will continue to track legal decisions addressing the helmet defense in cases in Pennsylvania and around the country to develop a better indication of the direction courts are moving in.

By Stephen Ledva and Chloe Chipkin