Whether or not you can recover damages after a motorcycle accident when you weren’t wearing a helmet may be complicated. At the end of the day, it comes down to the state’s motorcycle laws and the location of your injuries.
State motorcycle helmet laws are a big part of figuring out liability and damages after an accident. New Jersey Public law 39:3-76.7, which applies to riders of all ages, says, “No person shall operate or ride upon a motorcycle unless he wears a securely fitted protective helmet of a size proper for that person and of a type approved by the federal DOT.”
With this in mind, determining liability becomes a bit easier. A New Jersey motorcyclist riding without a helmet is acting unlawfully, which makes it much more difficult to collect damages in the event of an accident.
However, it is certainly not impossible to collect damages after a motorcycle-vehicle accident if the motorcyclist was not wearing a helmet; this is where the location of the injuries come into play. Helmets are designed to protect you from head and neck injuries, so if your injuries were not in that area, use of a helmet may be irrelevant.
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For example, say you were riding your motorcycle on the highway without a helmet when another driver, who was distracted at the time, swerved into your lane and hit you. If you suffered a broken arm, broken ankle, and road rash, you could certainly have a personal injury claim against the other driver—and have a good chance of collecting damages. In this case, the use of a helmet would not have prevented your injuries.
However, this is not to say that an opposing attorney cannot bring it up. Whether or not wearing a helmet would have prevented your injuries, an opposing attorney can use the fact that you were not wearing one to paint you as an irresponsible motorcyclist.
Now, say the rider was involved in the exact same accident but suffered head and neck injuries. In this case, a personal injury claim would be much harder to bring and win. New Jersey operates under a system of “comparative negligence,” meaning the overall damages you are eligible to win will be reduced by your percentage of fault. An opposing attorney can certainly argue that, by violating the law and not wearing a helmet, the motorcyclist held the majority of fault.
In order to win damages for head and neck injuries after not wearing a helmet, you would have to prove that you would have sustained the same injuries, even if you had been wearing a helmet. If the court or insurance adjuster believes a helmet would have prevented injuries, then the motorcyclist’s compensation can be reduced accordingly.
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At the end of the day, helmets save lives and greatly reduce the risk of serious head and neck injuries. Approximately 2,5000 motorcycles were involved in crashes in New Jersey in 2012, contributing to 78 fatalities. Most riders are traveling 30 mph or slower when the accident occurs, and at that speed, a helmet can reduce the number and severity of a head injury by half. Regardless of speed, those riding without a helmet are three times more likely to suffer a fatal head injury than those wearing a helmet.