The debate over the safety of wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle isn’t new. Some bikers assert the right to their personal freedom and choice in the matter. Safety proponents have lobbied the Oklahoma legislature for decades over the issue. Setting aside the personal rights versus the safety issue, what’s the rule in accident cases?
Suppose a motorcycle rider is injured while riding a bike without a helmet. Can the lack of a helmet be offered into evidence as contributing to the injuries? Oklahoma defense attorneys recognize that challenging the cause of the injury helps the defense. In defending the driver of the car involved, a good defense attorney will argue about the cause of the injuries. The insurance company for the car doesn’t want to pay for damages not caused by the insured.
In Oklahoma courts, some types of evidence cannot be used. This is true in other states also. The courts have the final say on what evidence the jury will hear. Some evidence is not relevant. Other evidence is more harmful than really helpful. Judges make rulings on the admissibility at trial. The rulings determine what evidence the jury will hear.
In Johnson v. Stacy, 2016 OK CIV APP 56, Johnson was riding his bike in Tulsa on a road with road construction. James Stacy pulled out from a private driveway in front of the motorcycle. It created an emergency for the biker. He laid the bike down to avoid colliding with the car. The facts varied with the witnesses giving different accounts. The defense raised the lack of a helmet as a defense. The attorney for the biker argued the evidence should not be admitted.
The Oklahoma Court of Appeals ruled:
Unlike the law related to the use of seatbelts, no rules apparently have been established by the Oklahoma Legislature or pursuant to common law regarding the introduction of evidence of use or nonuse of a motorcycle helmet. This question appears to have a public policy dimension, and the only statement we have from the Legislature on this matter is its repeal of the law requiring helmet use. Courts in other jurisdictions are split on the issue of whether evidence of helmet nonuse is admissible. A substantial number prohibit the introduction of such evidence.1 A number of other jurisdictions allow such evidence in damages questions for the limited purpose of allowing testimony that injury to the head area could have been reduced by helmet use.
Johnston v. Stacy, 2016 OK CIV APP 56, ____ P.3d ____.
In Oklahoma, the refusal to wear a helmet probably will not be information considered by the jury. Arguments can be made both ways as seen by the split in the courts across the country. Oklahoma defense attorneys will continue to raise the issues in motorcycle accident litigation.