Just as there are laws requiring motor vehicle drivers and passengers to wear seat belts, many states have laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Opponents of these laws usually base their opposition on principles of freedom of choice, while proponents of helmet laws typically cite statistics showing lower serious injury/fatality rates when helmets are worn (like these Motorcycle Fatality Stats from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).
Regardless of which side of the debate you stand on, you should be aware that your decision to ride without a helmet could impact your ability to successfully pursue a personal injury claim against the person who caused your motorcycle accident. The impact on your case will depend in part on what your state's laws say about helmet use by motorcyclists and their passengers. Let's look at the details.
When Failure to Wear a Helmet Violates State Law
If you ride without a helmet in a state that has a mandatory helmet law, your violation of the law will typically amount to negligence on your part, and that may limit or totally bar any recovery against other negligent drivers.
In some states, the injured party's contributory negligence is a complete defense to a personal injury lawsuit, meaning the defendant (the person being sued) can have the lawsuit dismissed by showing the motorcycle rider was also negligent. The handful of states that still adhere to this harsh rule are Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
In the majority of states, the claimant's contributory negligence reduces his or her right to recover damages by a percentage equal to the claimant's share of fault. So, a determination of 30% contributory negligence, commonly referred to as "comparative negligence", will reduce the recovery by 30%). But in a number of those states, if the claimant is deemed 50 percent or more at fault, recovery is totally barred. When you ride in any of these states, you can avoid limitations or bars to recovery associated with the violation of a mandatory helmet law simply by wearing a helmet. In addition, the judge or jury deciding your case will view you in a more favorable light if you are seen as a law-abiding citizen.
When No State Helmet Law Applies
If your state's laws didn't require you to wear a helmet under the circumstances of your motorcycle accident, the impact on any injury claim you file becomes murkier.
As a general rule, the opposing party would have to argue and prove a causal relationship between your failure to wear a helmet and the injuries you sustained. For example, if you sustained a closed head injury and the opposing party introduces expert testimony that your injuries would have been lessened or prevented by wearing a helmet, this testimony will likely have a significant impact on the outcome of your case.
In contrast, if your only injury is a broken leg, it would be difficult for the opposing party to establish that wearing a helmet would have prevented your injuries.
Insurance Considerations and More
In addition to the considerations discussed above, you may also experience difficulties with your own insurance company if you were not wearing a helmet at the time of your accident. Some insurers will boost your premium if you represent that you wear a helmet when riding your motorcycle, and it turns out you weren't wearing your helmet when the accident occurred. Additionally, your insurer may not cover your loss if you were not wearing a helmet while riding in a state with a mandatory helmet law. Learn more about How Insurance Affects a Vehicle Accident Case.
Mandatory helmet laws and insurance practices affecting helmet use are the source of strong opinions on both sides of the issue. If you ride, consider how your decision not to wear a helmet could impact your ability to pursue a claim for damages when you suffer injuries in an accident. And if you've been involved in a motorcycle accident where you weren't wearing a helmet, regardless of what the law says in your state, you might want to discuss your situation with an experienced motorcycle accident attorney.