Motorcycle Accidents: Is Failure to Wear a Helmet Contributory Negligence in Maryland?

A former insurance law student of mine asked this week whether Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s failure to wear a helmet in his motorcycle accident earlier this month would be contributory negligence under Maryland law. Good question! Under the current state of the law, the answer is a qualified no.

The Maryland Court of Appeals addressed this issue 36 years ago in Rodgers v. Frush, 257 Md. 233 (1970). This case involved a motorcycle collision case in PG County where the Defendant sought to introduce evidence at trial from a medical doctor who would testify that the Plaintiff’s failure to wear a helmet exacerbated his injuries from the motorcycle accident. The Plaintiff argued that this evidence was not relevant to contributory negligence because it did not involve the issue of the Plaintiff’s or Defendant’s standard of care. The court agreed and our high court affirmed. The court noted that while Maryland had passed a helmet law three years after the accident, this did not establish a standard of care.

I earlier said the answer is a qualified no because the court said there was not a standard of care that a helmet should be worn. Of course, there is now a helmet law in Maryland. But this appears to be dicta given the core of the court’s holding that the failure to wear a helmet does not go to the question of the standard of care.

A related question is whether this evidence could be admitted under the doctrine of avoidable consequences. Similar to the contractual rule of mitigation of damages, if some of those damages suffered by the Plaintiff could have been avoided by compliance with the appropriate safety requirements, the damages that could have been avoided are reduced from the recovery.

The Court of Appeals in Rodgers considered this issue as well. The court determined that the doctrine of avoidable consequences applied only to conduct that occurred after the tort (again, analogous to mitigation of damages). The court also cited a North Carolina case with approval that articulated that it also would not apply the doctrine of avoidable consequences because it would (1) not ask jurors to parse damages because this would invite verdicts on prejudice and sympathy contrary to the law, (2) create ‘unnecessary conflicts in result,’ and (3) degrade the law by reducing it to a game of chance. (I frankly do not understand how the latter two factors apply to the doctrine of avoidable consequences.)

The arguments on this helmet issue are very similar to the arguments on the failure to wear a seat belt issue, which was addressed in an earlier blog post.

Here is how a few other jurisdictions have addressed this issue:

Colorado: The Colorado Court of Appeals found in Lawrence v. Taylor, 8 P.3rd 607 (Colo. Ct. App. 2000) that evidence of a motorcycle operator’s failure to wear a protective helmet was not admissible to show either negligence or a failure to mitigate damages on the part of the motorcyclist.

Georgia: In a wrongful death motorcycle accident case, the Court of Appeals of Georgia ruled that riding a motorcycle without a helmet was in violation of a statute and constituted negligence as a matter of law to the extent that the violation was the proximate cause of the motorcyclist’s injuries/death. See Green v. Gaydon, 331 S.E.2d 103, 108 (1985).
Maine: The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals interpreting Maine law in Rodgers v. American Honda Motor Co., 46 F.3d 1 (1995) denied a motoin to exclude evidence that the Plaintiff was not wearing a helmet when his ATV flipped over, causing the Plaintiff catastrophic brain injuries. The 1st Circuit considered the legislative history of Maine’s comparative negligence statute and found the purpose of the statute was to consider not just the question of liability but also consideration of responsibility for the damages sustained. Because the statute called for a modified comparative negligence standard that required that Plaintiff must be less than 50% responsible for his or her injuries and all of the evidence showed the Plaintiff would not have suffered such a serious injury if he wore a helmet, the 1st Circuit found that trial court properly admitted the evidence.

South Carolina: In Mayes v. Paxton, 313 S.C. 109 (S.C.1993), the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the defenses of contributory negligence and assumption of risk were insufficient because they were based on Plaintiff’s failure to wear a motorcycle helmet.

Texas: In Kennon v. Slipstreamer, 794 F2d 1067 (5th Cir. 1986) the Court applied Texas law in a strict liability case that focused primarily on eye protection equipment rather than motorcycle helmets. This case involved a shattered windshield on a moped. The court found that Plaintiff’s recovery must be reduced by the percentage of the injury attributable to the Plaintiff’s negligence.

  • My helmet has saved my life and those of my fellow riders countless times after crashes on both street motorcycles and dirtbikes. Always wear your helmet!

  • I agree…always wear you helmet…it doesn’t hurt unless you don’t.

  • I have been riding bikes since I was old enough to walk. on the street riding bikes for 25 years. Sometimes I wear a helmet, sometimes I don’t. The 2 times I went down on the street, (Cars Fault)Once wearing a helmet once not wearing a helmet. The one not wearing a helmet was far worse than the one with the helmet. But both times I walked away without ever hitting my head, or helmet. Bike was totaled in the non helmet accident. I drove away on the helmeted accident. My point here is, it should be my choice whether I wear the brain bucket or not. Most of the time I wear one, but there are those days I want to ride free.

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