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Seat Belts, Helmets and Contributory Negligence

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Posted On 03.11.13 by in Auto Accidents

Some people mistakenly believe that because they did not wear a seat belt when involved in a Maryland automobile accident, that they are not entitled to a car accident settlement.  People on bikes or motorcycles sometimes make the same assumption about helmets.  Here’s the Maryland law you need to know:

Maryland Seat Belts

In Maryland, there is a law that clearly prohibits insurance companies from even mentioning that an automobile accident victim did not use a seat belt.  Maryland Transportation Code § 22‑412.3 says:

(h) Failure to use seat belt. —

(1) Failure of an individual to use a seat belt in violation of this section may not:

(i) Be considered evidence of negligence;

(ii) Be considered evidence of contributory negligence;

(iii) Limit liability of a party or an insurer; or

(iv) Diminish recovery for damages arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or operation of a motor vehicle.

(2) Subject to the provisions of paragraph (3) of this subsection, a party, witness, or counsel may not make reference to a seat belt during a trial of a civil action that involves property damage, personal injury, or death if the damage, injury, or death is not related to the design, manufacture, installation, supplying, or repair of a seat belt.

There is a similar rule regarding child safety seats (Maryland Transportation Code § 22‑412.2(i)).

This helps to protect automobile accident victims by focusing the trial on the issues that are really important, namely, who caused the accident and what the resulting injuries were.  Otherwise, juries would have to speculate (or lawyers would have to hire expensive experts) on how much of the injury would have been prevented by the use of seat belts.  There may not be any way to know the answer to that, and as a matter of public policy, we want negligent drivers to pay for the accidents they cause.

Of course, it is still important (not to mention the law) that drivers and passengers must wear seat belts.  But a failure to do so does not impact a victim’s right to recover for their automobile accident injuries.

Maryland Helmets

The issue of whether a defense lawyer can bring in evidence that the plaintiff did not wear a helmet in a Maryland motorcycle accident or Maryland bicycle accident is not as clear as the issue regarding seat belts.  In Rogers v. Frush, where the motorcycle accident occurred three years before a mandatory helmet rule, Maryland’s highest court decided that there was no standard of care requiring the wearing of a motorcycle helmet.  However, the 1989 case of Doehring v. Wagner contains this statement from the Court of Special Appeals:  “we would have found, as a matter of law, that the action of Doehring in driving a motorcycle at a high speed, at night, without a helmet and without headlights, was clearly contributorily negligent.” It’s hard to say whether driving without a helmet alone would be contributorily negligent, but it certainly gives some room for argument by insurance lawyers.

Trial Strategy

In any case where seat belts or helmet use is an issue, the lawyers should try to take that issue off the table by filing a motion to exclude that evidence at trial.  In some cases, wearing a helmet may not even be relevant—unless the victim suffered a head or brain injury, using a helmet would not be related to any injuries.

The other consideration, however, is that people on a jury may want to know whether a plaintiff was wearing a helmet or using a seat belt.  Juries have a way of zeroing in on evidence that is withheld from them, and if they believe that a plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt or using a helmet, they might hold that against the victim.  In cases like this, it might be better to request a bench trial (decided by a judge, who will better understand the law), or there might be other strategies used to defuse the jury’s speculation.

Contact Us

If you have questions after an automobile accident, motorcycle accident or bicycle accident in Maryland or West Virginia, contact our personal injury lawyers at 1-800-776-4529, or tell us about your accident online.

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