Helmet laws have been controversial for decades, with states yo-yo-ing between having them, not having them, and having some version. Motorcyclists enjoy the wind in their hair with the freedom of the road stretching out ahead of them and decry the need for helmets. This is fine in Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire – and 28 other states if you’re at least 21 years of age – but 19 states have a universal helmet law which requires all riders to wear a helmet. This safety measure is based upon crystal clear statistics that show head injuries are the primary cause of fatality in motorcycle accidents. In fact, statistics show that wearing a helmet prevents brain injury in 67% of motorcycle accidents and is 37% effective in mortality prevention. That aside, do the helmet laws of your state affect your rights with regards to personal injury recovery? In a word, yes.
Each state dictates the laws governing insurance rates and coverage. Three primary considerations in an accident include:
- Whether your state is an at-fault or no-fault state
- Whether your state has a helmet law
- Your level of negligence in the accident
In a no-fault state each driver pays their own damages regardless of who caused the accident, with important exceptions: if your personal injury exceeds Personal Injury Protection coverage, and/or you are permanently injured, you are entitled to sue the at-fault driver.
If the state also has a helmet law, your insurance carrier will pay your claim up to your personal injury limits, then either drop your coverage or raise your future rates. A rider without a helmet is a high-risk rider for any insurance company, given the likelihood of significant head and brain injury and the attendant elevated medical costs, incurred in a motorcycle accident. (The exceptions still apply but defending your claim is harder).
In an at-fault (tort law) state without a helmet law, the negligent driver has to pay damages – once their negligence is proven. Where it gets complex is in an at-fault state with a helmet law, such as California.
Contributory or Comparative Negligence
If you are injured in a motorcycle accident in an at-fault state with a helmet law, and you weren’t wearing a helmet, you suddenly have a degree of negligence in the accident. This means that you caused some or all of your own head injuries when you broke the helmet law. The other driver’s insurance company and/or attorney can certainly claim this. Five states in the U.S. can defend against your personal injury claim through “injured party’s contributory negligence”: Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In these states you may not recover any damages if you weren’t wearing a helmet in the accident.
California has a comparative fault law which allows juries to determine a percentage of injuries caused by your own negligence, to reduce your personal injury damages; that is, they argue that a certain percentage of your injuries could have been prevented by wearing a helmet. For example, if 40% of your injuries are head injuries that could have been prevented by wearing a helmet, the court reduces your personal injury damages by 40%. In some states, the court will deny your claim if the other driver’s lawyer can prove that your “comparative negligence” was 50% or greater.
Whatever your situation, your best chance of damage recovery lies in hiring a personal injury lawyer who understands insurance and state laws. You don’t need the headache and stress of dealing with the other driver’s insurance company and legal team while you’re recovering from perhaps life-altering injuries. If you live in the Los Angeles area, please feel free to contact us at Freeman & Freeman, LLP or call 818-992-2919 and let our experts handle your claim.