Cycle helmets and contributory negligence

Damaged cycling helmet

This blog is not about whether one should or should not wear a helmet, instead it’s a summary of how Insurance companies have presented arguments in Courts in relation to personal injury claims and specifically in relation to contributory negligence.


What’s the current Legal Status?

In the UK there is currently no legal requirement to wear a helmet while cycling. However, rule 59 of the Highway Code does advise cyclists to wear helmets by stating that cyclists “should wear a helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened.”


What impact might wearing or not wearing a helmet have in a personal injury claim?

A cyclist’s failure to wear a helmet whilst cycling may lead to a finding of contributory negligence when pursuing a claim for personal injury. A successful finding of contributory negligence will lead to a deduction in the sum of damages awarded in personal injury claims. However, in order to successfully claim this, the defenders must establish by way of medical and/or technical evidence that wearing a helmet would have prevented injury. There have been numerous court decisions in recent years regarding contributory negligence for not wearing a cycling helmet which provide a helpful approach to follow when accessing the level of deduction that may apply.

Cases where contributory negligence did not apply.

In the case of Smith v Finch [2009] EWHC 53 (QB), a cyclist was knocked off his bicycle following a collision with a motorcyclist. The cyclist was not wearing a helmet and suffered serious head injuries. Expert evidence showed that cycle helmets are only designed to withstand an impact speed of up to 12mph. It was held that the speed the cyclist hit the ground was too fast for a helmet to provide protection. There was no evidence heard to suggest that wearing a helmet would have prevented the head injury or reduced the severity of the head injury. Therefore, a deduction for contributory negligence was not made as the failure to not wear a helmet did not contribute to the injuries sustained by the pursuer.

In the more recent case of Phethean–Hubble v Coles [2011] EWHC 363, a similar decision was taken. This case involved a cyclist who was hit by a vehicle at an impact speed of 30 mph. The cyclist was not wearing a helmet and sustained a severe brain injury. It was held that the use of a helmet would have made little or no difference to the injuries sustained and the argument for a finding of contributory negligence was dismissed.


Case where contributory negligence did apply.

In contrast to the above cases, in the case of Reynolds v Strutt and Parker [2011] EWHC 2263 (QB) it was held that wearing a cycling helmet would have made a difference to the injuries sustained by the pursuer. This was because the speed at which the cyclist’s head came into contact with the ground fell below 12 mph. The cyclist was taking part in a cycling race and sustained a head injury after colliding with another cyclist. He deliberately prevented another cyclist from passing which had led to the collision occurring. He was found to have contributed to his injuries as he had failed to wear a cycling helmet despite helmets being available. Wearing a helmet would have prevented or reduced the severity of his head injury. His damages were subsequently reduced by two thirds for his failure to wear a cycling helmet and due to his reckless cycling.


12mph seems to be the defining speed

So, a deduction for contributory negligence can be made for not wearing a helmet whilst cycling. However, it is for the defender to establish by way of medical and/or technical evidence that wearing a cycling helmet would have reduced the injury sustained by the pursuer in a claim for personal injury. In particular, the crucial factor when deciding if contributory negligence applies seems to be whether the impact speed of the collision was above or below 12 mph. If it is above, then it can be argued that a cycling helmet would have made no difference to the injuries sustained. It does however, remain unclear as to the exact level of deduction that can be applied if a finding of contributory negligence is made and it appears that each case will have to be looked at individually.


Summary

No cyclist heads out on a ride thinking that they will be involved in a road traffic collision. However, unfortunately it can and does happen; we see this first hand every day. Cyclists need to be aware that should they sustain an injury to their head as a result of a road traffic collision, then there is a chance that their damages in Civil law may be reduced because of their failure to take that reasonable safety precaution of wearing a helmet.











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