The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bassler, District Judge.
Defendants trucking company and driver move, in limine, to
introduce evidence of decedent's failure to wear a helmet while
riding her bicycle when she was allegedly struck by Defendants'
truck and fell to her death as proof of decedent's comparative
negligence in order to reduce damages. Plaintiffs also move, in
limine, to preclude any evidence of decedent's failure to wear
a helmet. This Court has subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1332 in that the parties are citizens of different
states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. For the
following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted and
Plaintiffs' motion is denied.
On August 19, 1997, at approximately 9:00 p.m., Julie Nunez
("Decedent") died in a tragic bicycle accident. Decedent had
been riding her bicycle in a northerly direction along River
Road in Edgewater, New Jersey, along with her friend, Irvin
Sessoms, when she fell from her bicycle to her death. The
autopsy revealed that the cause of death was injury to the head.
Around the same time, the defendant, Ronald Louis Jackson
("Jackson"), was driving an orange, 18 wheel, tractor-trailer
combination in a northerly direction on River Road. His truck
was stopped by police approximately one or two miles north of
the scene of the accident shortly after 9:00 p.m.
Sessoms, who had been riding behind decedent at the time of
accident, was the only eye-witness. According to Sessoms, an
orange 18-wheel, tractor-trailer struck decedent on her left
arm, causing her to fall from her bicycle to her death.
Plaintiff then brought this wrongful death action against
Jackson and his employer, Schneider National Carriers, alleging
that Jackson's negligent operation of the truck was the cause of
decedent's death. Defendants dispute liability: Jackson denies
ever seeing decedent on the road or being involved in any
Nevertheless, Defendants contend that if a jury were to find
them liable, the amount of damages should be reduced to the
extent that decedent's own negligence contributed to her death.
This action was removed to this Court from the Superior Court
of New Jersey, Hudson County on September 24, 1999. Following
the completion of discovery, Defendants moved for summary
judgment, which motion was denied by this Court. The matter was
set to begin trial on Tuesday, July 16, 2002.
Defendants now move to introduce evidence that decedent's
failure to wear a helmet contributed to her injuries and,
therefore, any damages awarded to plaintiff should be reduced by
decedent's comparative fault. Plaintiffs move separately to
exclude any evidence of helmet nonuse for purposes of proving
comparative negligence to reduce damages.
On Monday, July 15, 2002, the Court heard oral argument from
the parties on these motions.
In diversity actions such as this, when deciding an issue of
state law, the Court must determine which state's law to apply.
This court looks to New Jersey's choice of law rules, Klaxon
Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85
L.Ed. 1477 (1941), which provides that the applicable law is
that of the place with the most significant relationship to the
parties and the transaction. Erny v. Estate of Merola,
171 N.J. 86, 792 A.2d 1208 (2002). Under this analysis, it is
undisputed that New Jersey law controls. The decedent lived in
New Jersey and this lawsuit arose out of an accident that
occurred in Edgewater, New Jersey.
The Court, therefore, turns to New Jersey law regarding the
admissibility of evidence of a decedent's failure to wear a
helmet while riding a bicycle on a roadway where motorized
vehicles travel for the purpose of reducing damages. Because no
New Jersey state court has addressed the issue of the helmet
defense, the Court must predict what the New Jersey
Supreme Court would decide on this issue. Commissioner of
Internal Revenue v. Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 87 S.Ct. 1776, 18
L.Ed.2d 886 (1967); Gruber v. Owens-Illinois, Inc.,
899 F.2d 1366 (3d Cir. 1990).
Initially, the Court notes that evidence of failure to wear a
helmet generally has no relevance on the issue of liability,
since such failure rarely contributes to the cause of an
accident.*fn1 See, e.g., Meyer v. City of Des Moines,
475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (1991). Failure to use a helmet may, however, be
a contributing cause to the injuries sustained and so may be
relevant to the issue of damages. Id.
Many courts addressing the so-called "helmet defense" as an
issue of first impression have drawn upon their state's
application of the more commonly asserted and well established
"seat belt defense." See, e.g., Stehlik v. Rhoads,
253 Wis.2d 477, 645 N.W.2d 889 (2002) (principles applicable to seat belt
defense also govern helmet defense); Meyer v. City of Des
Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (Iowa 1991) (failure to wear helmet
analogous to issue of failure to use seat belt); Warfel ...