Can a Motorcyclist Who Wasn’t Wearing a Helmet Recover Compensation in a Personal Injury Case?

Motorcycle helmets are not mandatory in South Dakota for riders who are 18 or older. As a result, many adult riders choose not to wear helmets, which greatly increases their risk of a head or spinal injury. But how does their decision not to wear a helmet affect their right to pursue a personal injury claim and to recover damages?

In most states, there would be a relatively simple answer. Drivers are held responsible for damages according to their percentage of fault in causing the accident or the injuries suffered. A plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by the extent to which he or she is comparatively negligent. But South Dakota’s personal injury law is more complicated. It is the only state that uses what is called the slight/gross comparative negligence system.

Under this unique law, a plaintiff — such as an injured motorcycle rider who was not wearing a helmet — is allowed to recover damages only if his or her own negligence is determined to be “slight” in comparison with the other driver’s negligence. If the rider’s own negligence is found to be more than slight, then he or she is totally barred from recovering any compensation.

There are obvious issues with this system, the biggest one being the definition of “slight.” The leading South Dakota Supreme Court case on this issue, Wood v. City of Crooks, holds that when a plaintiff’s own negligence is 30 percent or more, he or she is totally barred from recovering compensation.

To understand how this could work, compare two hypothetical motorcycle accident cases where riders who were not wearing helmets sustain head trauma and related injuries and have provable damages of $100,000. In Accident A, the motorcyclist is found to be 35 percent responsible for those injuries and so is barred from recovering any of those damages. In Accident B, the motorcyclist is found to be only 10 percent responsible and as such can recover damages, but the award will be reduced by 10 percent to $90,000.

However, the foregoing calculation affects only damages for injuries resulting from failure to wear a helmet. Liability for other injuries — such as broken bones, contusions, burns and nerve or muscle damage — are apportioned according to the parties’ fault in causing the accident itself, which is usually unrelated to the rider’s lack of a helmet.

The takeaway message is that the rider is barred from recovering compensation for head and related injuries only if lack of a helmet more than slightly contributed to causing them.

If you or someone you love was injured in a motorcycle accident, whether they were wearing a helmet or not, the injury attorney at Anker Law Group may be able to help you recover compensation. Call our Rapid City office at 605-519-5967or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

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