There is a widely-accepted, but wrong, belief that a motorcyclist cannot be compensated for injuries that he or she sustains as the result of an accident if the motorcyclist was not wearing a helmet. This belief is based on the mistaken assumption that, since a helmet is required by state law, anyone involved in a motorcycle accident who is not wearing a helmet is breaking the law and therefore cannot recover damages. As we will see, this is not the case.
First of all, it is true that California has what is usually called a “Universal Helmet Law.” This means that both the driver and passenger must wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle on a public street or highway in the state. Surprisingly, a helmet is the only item of protective gear required by California law. In other words, as long as the motorcycle driver and passenger are wearing a helmet, they are “legal” regardless of whatever else they are (or are not) wearing!
Next, we point out that the California Vehicle Code requires that the drivers of all motorized vehicles operated on California streets and highways are required to obey the same traffic laws and, further, are required to drive in a manner that will minimize the chance that they might cause an accident. If an automobile driver is driving recklessly and causes an accident involving a motorcyclist, the accident would have happened regardless of what the motorcyclist was (or wasn’t) wearing at the time. We can now turn to the question posed in the title of this article.
Since the mere fact that a motorcyclist wasn’t wearing helmet would have had no influence on whether or not the accident occurred, he or she cannot be held to have contributed in any way to that accident. In the question posed above the motorcyclist, at most, could be issued a traffic citation and required to pay a fine! By the same line of reasoning, the fact that a motorcyclist was not wearing a helmet cannot be logically extended to justify denying damages to someone whose broken arm or broken leg was due to a helmetless motorcyclist who was struck by an automobile driver who ran through a traffic signal.
The only argument the automobile driver (the defendant in a civil lawsuit) could raise regarding damages owed to the motorcyclist would be to assert that the motorcyclist’s negligence in not wearing a helmet contributed to the biker’s injury. This claim would also fail for the following reason.
In lawsuits alleging damages for personal injury, a defendant is able to assert that the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed in some way to the accident and that any damages awarded should be reduced by the percentage of the plaintiff’s responsibility for their injury. This is known as the doctrine of contributory negligence, and the courts of California use a type of this doctrine known as “pure contributory negligence.”
Pure contributory negligence takes into consideration the degree to which each party’s actions contributed to an accident. This contribution is expressed as a percentage and ranges from 1% (no real contribution) to 99% (almost fully responsible). Note that the operative phrase in the doctrine of contributory negligence is “contributed to the accident.”
As we have seen, the fact that a motorcyclist was not wearing a helmet would have no influence at all on whether or not an accident occurred. Therefore, a motorcyclist cannot be barred from collecting damages for not wearing a helmet and a defendant cannot use that fact that the motorcyclist was not wearing a helmet to escape paying damages.