02

Blog

Court’s Remark About Helmets May Harm Illinois Bicycle Crash Victims

StateBadges_Web_IL

Sometimes a wayward comment by a Court can wreak all manner of havoc.  Recently, I came across such a remark in a federal case from the Northern District of Illinois which I fear could have a negative impact on bicycle crash cases filed in Illinois state court.

The issue which the federal court stepped in pertains to whether a defendant in a personal injury case arising from a bicycle crash may present evidence to a jury that the cyclist was not wearing a helmet. The purpose of such evidence would be to suggest that, where the crash victim sustained a head injury, the failure to wear a helmet contributed to cause the injury and, therefore, is a factor which may reduce the amount of compensation to which the cyclist may receive.  The case, City of Chicago v. M/V Morgan, 248 F.Supp.2d 759 (N.D. Ill. 2003), actually had nothing to do with bicycles or injuries.  The case grew out of an incident in which a barge caused damage to a bridge held in trust by the City of Chicago and which the City was responsible to maintain.  In discussing whether the City was contributorily negligent in its maintenance of the bridge, the federal court noted by way of example that, “Even a thin-skulled bicycle-rider could be contributorily negligent for failure to wear a helmet.” M/V Morgan, 248 F.Supp.2d at 776.

Huh?

No, actually, a bicycle-rider, thin-skulled or otherwise, cannot be contributorily negligent for not wearing a helmet in Illinois. Federal district court decisions do not create authoritative precedent for state courts.  In other words, an Illinois state court, were the majority of personal injury cases arising from bicycle crashes are filed, is not bound by the holding of a federal district court. However, a state court judge, may find a federal court’s ruling persuasive and in the absence of clear state law authority, may choose to follow it.  Federal district courts are after-all supposed to base their holdings on substantive matters (as opposed to mere procedural matters) on the law of the state in which the court sits.  Being the cynic I am, I sense that it is just a matter of time before a defense lawyer in one of our many bicycle crash cases cites to the M/V Morgan decision to persuade a trial judge that a jury should be permitted to consider that an injured bicyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time of their crash.  The effect this could have on the cyclist’s ability receive a fair trial could be catastrophic.  Sadly, in my experience, many folks feel that a cyclist who was riding without a helmet may deserve whatever they get.  Hence, evidence of a lack of helmet could preclude a bicyclist’s ability to receive fair compensation.

Where on earth did the M/V Morgan court come up with its observation about bicycle helmets? For nearly 30 years, thanks to the cases of Hukill v. DiGregorio, 484 N.E.2d 794 (2nd Dist. 1985) and Clarkson v. Wright, 483 N.E.2d 268 (1985), it has been the law of our state that a failure to wear a helmet cannot be used to prove an injury victim’s contributory negligence or to reduce the compensation to which they may be entitled.  A close look at the source of the federal court’s comment reveals that it was not based on Illinois law at all.  The Court cites a federal district court case from New Jersey, Nunez v. Schneider Nat’l Carriers, 217 F.Supp.2d 562 (D.N.J. 2002).  The holding in that matter, in which the court was applying New Jersey law, found that evidence that a bicyclist contributed to their head injury for failing to wear a helmet was admissible.  In so doing, the court admitting that it was disagreeing with another federal district court in that state, Cordy v. Sherwin Williams Co., 975 F.Supp. 639 (1997), which issued the opposite holding just five years prior.  The Nunez court also acknowledged that its holding was contrary to that of other jurisdictions:  “The majority of courts addressing the issue have, for assorted reasons, rejected the admissibility of helmet evidence.” Nunez, 217 F.Supp.2d at 567.  It explicitly acknowledged Illinois as being within that majority, citing Hukill v. DiGregorioId. at 568.

The M/V Morgan Court’s remark about helmet evidence is neither binding law, nor a persuasive source in support of the admissibility of such evidence.  It is likely, in fact, that the court never intended it to be either.  As noted earlier in this post, the case had nothing to do with a bicycle crash.  It was not a personal injury case.  The court had not been asked to consider bicycle helmet evidence at all.  Its comment about bike helmets was what is generally referred to in the legal world as dictum, an aside remark by a judge that is not intended to create binding authority.  But such comments, like a bullet fired into the air, can cause unintended harm.  Any attorney representing a bicyclist in a personal injury case should be familiar with M/V Morgan and be prepared to educate the trial judge that the commentary in that case concerning bicycle helmet evidence does not reflect Illinois law.

Comments

Rachael Maney Nov 28, 2018

I asked my 7 year old son, Will, to draw me a picture of each of these things: life with cars; life with electric cars; life with autonomous cars; they all looked the same. But the fourth picture- life in a modern, forward thinking, and environmentally, economically, and socially responsible place- looked very different. Even […]

Read More
Matt Johnson Nov 06, 2018

We were somewhere around Denison on the edge of the corn fields when the Eurostyle Chamois Butter began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded, maybe we should stop at a watering station…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us, and the road was full of […]

Read More
Peter Wilborn Oct 02, 2018

October is a big month in the triathlon world, with the Kona Ironman World Championships on the 13th. So it is good news that Triathlete Magazine chose its October issue to focus on bicycle safety and advocacy. Bike Law Director (and our resident triathlete) Rachael Maney was featured and interviewed in the piece. She shared […]

Read More
Peter Wilborn Sep 28, 2018

Chicago has become one of the nation’s top cycling cities, but along with more has come an increase in dooring crashes. A Chicago news channel has covered the issue and interviewed attorney Brendan Kevenides, Bike Law’s legal resource in Illinois. Brendan explained the growing risk to cyclists and how the “Dutch Reach” can help.  The […]

Read More
Amy Benner Johnson Sep 21, 2018

Drivers are coming within less than 1.5 feet of cyclists on the road in Knoxville with alarming regularity. Drivers are coming within less than two feet of cyclists on the road in Knoxville with alarming regularity. It’s not your imagination. It’s not all in your head. Your combined senses of touch, sound, and sight all […]

Read More
Rachael Maney Sep 12, 2018

You may have already seen the video below. If you haven’t, please watch. On Tuesday, August 24th just before 7PM, Jeff McCord and approximately 20 other cyclists were stopped at the intersection of Karl Daly and Grants Mill Road in Irondale, Alabama, a town outside the city of Birmingham. As McCord waited for an ambulance […]

Read More
Rachael Maney Aug 30, 2018

In 2010, Richmond, California got lucky when Brooklyn born Najari Smith planted roots in the Bay Area city, quickly claiming a very important role in his new community. Having given more than 1,100 bikes to Richmond’s youth and community members in the last 6 years, Najari’s vision and mission to promote a bike-centric lifestyle has […]

Read More
Bruce Hagen Jul 17, 2018

On July 11, 2018, a very experienced rider and friend to many in the Rockdale County area, Albert “Ab” Roesel, was killed while out on a rural road doing a ride that he no doubt had done many times before.  Ab was 75 years old.   The police investigation concluded that Ab had been headed Southbound, […]

Read More
Brendan Kevenides Jun 04, 2018

At sea a boat under power must give way to a more vulnerable craft.  The law requires that a power driven vessel give way to a sailing vessel.  A sail boat must give way to a craft engaged in fishing. These simple rules are consistent with the maxim that with greater power comes greater responsibility. […]

Read More
Commuter Bike
Bruce Hagen May 29, 2018

Recently, my wife and I moved into a new home that’s closer to my office, which has allowed me to start commuting by bike.  I rode my bike to and from my office 4 consecutive days before my schedule forced me back into the car. My hope and plan is to commute by bike at […]

Read More
Pat Brown May 10, 2018

Strength, ambition, and courage are just a few words that come to mind when we think of Anthony Lue.  Growing up, Anthony enjoyed playing competitive sports such as baseball, volleyball, basketball and mountain biking, but his true passion was discovered on his high school track.    After winning gold for 100m hurdles at the provincial championships […]

Read More
Lauri Boxer-Macomber Apr 30, 2018

Following a horrific bicycle crash in 2016, Dr. Michael Rifkin has become a new type of bicycling advocate — one who is deeply committed to ending distracted driving. Read his op-ed on Making Distracted Driving in Maine Taboo here. Dr. Rifkin’s piece reminds us that we can be distracted by our phones and other electronic devices even […]

Read More
Load More