A North Carolina man was killed Saturday afternoon while riding his motorcycle in South Carolina. According to news reports, the motorcycle ran off the right side of the road, hit a road sign and then a tree, and finally threw the man from the motorcycle. The motorcyclist was pronounced dead at the scene. He was not wearing a helmet.
In South Carolina, people over the age of 21 are not required to wear helmets to ride a motorcycle. North Carolina law, however, requires all people to wear helmets while riding a motorcycle. G.S. 20-140.4 states that
(a) No person shall operate a motorcycle or moped upon a highway or public vehicular area:
(1) When the number of persons upon such motorcycle or moped, including the operator, shall exceed the number of persons which it was designed to carry.
(2) Unless the operator and all passengers thereon wear on their heads, with a retention strap properly secured, safety helmets of a type that complies with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218.
(b) Violation of any provision of this section shall not be considered negligence per se or contributory negligence per se in any civil action.
(c) Any person convicted of violating this section shall have committed an infraction and shall pay a penalty of twenty-five dollars and fifty cents ($25.50) plus the following court costs: the General Court of Justice fee provided for in G.S. 7A-304(a)(4), the telephone facilities fee provided for in G.S. 7A-304(a)(2a), and the law enforcement training and certification fee provided for in G.S. 7A-304(a)(3b). Conviction of an infraction under this section has no other consequence.
(d) No drivers license points or insurance surcharge shall be assessed on account of violation of this section.
Under 20-4.01(27)(d), motorcycles are considered to be
Vehicles having a saddle for the use of the rider and designed to travel on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground, including motor scooters and motor-driven bicycles, but excluding tractors and utility vehicles equipped with an additional form of device designed to transport property, three-wheeled vehicles while being used by law-enforcement agencies and mopeds as defined in subdivision d1 of this subsection.
Therefore, if the motorcyclist had been riding his motorcycle in North Carolina, he would have been doing so in violation of G.S. 20-140.4(a)(2). The news reports indicate that no other cars or injuries were involved in Saturday’s accident. But let’s change the facts and suppose that the motorcyclist’s running off the road was caused by a negligently operated car. How would the motorcyclist failure to wear a helmet affect his ability to collect damages?
First, G.S. 20-142.(b) specifically provides that a violation of the requirement that a motorcyclist wear a helmet “shall not be considered negligence per se or contributory negligence per se in any civil action.” In the 1971 case, Snellings v. Roberts, the North Carolina Court of Appeals also used the previous version of this statute as a reason to reverse a judgment notwithstanding the verdict entered by a judge on the basis of the contributory negligence of a non-helmet wearing plaintiff.
Could a motorcyclist be contributorily negligent in other ways? Of course. A motorcycle is considered a “motor vehicle” under North Carolina statute and is subject to the same laws as all motor vehicles. Let’s suppose that the motorcycle was traveling on a two-lane highway, and a faster-moving car wanted to pass it on the left. Pursuant to G.S. 20-149, the car passed “at least two feet to the left” of the motorcycle, but returned to the right lane before it was fully past the motorcycle. The motorcycle was forced to move over to the right hand side of the right lane and ended up running off the road.
Under G.S. 20-146.1(a), “[a]ll motorcycles are entitled to full use of a lane and no motor vehicle shall be driven in such a manner as to deprive any motorcycle of the full use of a lane.” (Note that motorcycles may be operated two abreast in a single lane, but under G.S. 20-146.1(b), “[m]otorcycles shall not be operated more than two abreast in a single lane.”) Therefore, if a car deprived the “motorcycle of the full use of a lane,” it would violate G.S. 20-146.1(a), even if the motorcycle could have moved over to the right hand side of the lane to make room for the car.
What if, however, the car crossed back to the right lane too soon when a motorcycle was not operating the headlamps required by G.S. 20-129(c)? That section states that
Every motorcycle shall be equipped with at least one and not more than two headlamps which shall comply with the requirements and limitations set forth in G.S. 20-131 or 20-132. The headlamps on a motorcycle shall be lighted at all times while the motorcycle is in operation on highways or public vehicular areas.
If a motorcycle did not have these headlamps lit, it would reduce the visibility of the motorcycle. In that case, it might be argued that the motorcyclist’s failure to operate its headlamps was contributory negligence on the part of the motorcyclist. In North Carolina, a plaintiff’s contributory negligence will bar him from recovering damages from an otherwise negligent defendant. A few exceptions apply to this doctrine, such as a defendant’s gross negligence and the last clear chance doctrine.
If you have been injured in a motorcycle accident, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450 to discuss your options.