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Car Accident Caused by Driver Fatigue

The Charlotte Observer reports that a fatigued driver caused an accident on Independence which killed a woman and sent her two small children to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. The woman was stopped at a stop sign, waiting to turn right onto Independence from a side street, when the fatigued driver crossed from the far left lane across four lanes of traffic and struck the woman’s car on the driver’s side. This unfortunate accident highlights the dangers of fatigued driving. The Charlotte Observer article noted that the police had charged the fatigued driver with misdemeanor death by vehicle. Obviously, punishment assigned or money awarded will not take the place of a loved one lost, but how would the deceased woman’s loved ones go about collecting money to deal with things like funeral costs and medical bills?

First, a wrongful death suit would be filed by the personal representative of the decedent. A wrongful death suit is based on negligence, which means that the same elements must be proven as in any negligence case - duty to exercise reasonable care, breach of that duty, causation (both actual and proximate), and damages.

The negligence analysis in this case is fairly straightforward. By driving while so fatigued that he would fall asleep behind the wheel, the fatigued driver has breached a duty to other motorists on the road to exercise reasonable care while operating his vehicle. In addition, the driver was negligent per se because he violated a statute enacted for safety purposes, G.S. 20-146(d)(1), which states that

A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.

Is it possible to obtain punitive damages from a fatigued driver? Punitive damages are addressed by North Carolina statute.  G.S. 1D-15 states that:

(a)    Punitive damages may be awarded only if the claimant proves that the defendant is liable for compensatory damages and that one of the following aggravating factors was present and was related to the injury for which compensatory damages were awarded:

(1)    Fraud.

(2)    Malice.

(3)    Willful or wanton conduct.

(b)    The claimant must prove the existence of an aggravating factor by clear and convincing evidence.

(c)    Punitive damages shall not be awarded against a person solely on the basis of vicarious liability for the acts or omissions of another.  Punitive damages may be awarded against a person only if that person participated in the conduct constituting the aggravating factor giving rise to the punitive damages, or if, in the case of a corporation, the officers, directors, or managers of the corporation participated in or condoned the conduct constituting the aggravating factor giving rise to punitive damages.

(d)   Punitive damages shall not be awarded against a person solely for breach of contract.

The aggravating factor present and related to the injury in an automobile accident is most typically “willful or wanton conduct” which G.S. 1D-5(7) defines as “the conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably likely to result in injury.”

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has stated that

Punitive damages are allowable for injuries caused by the willful or wanton operation of a motor vehicle. Willfulness imports a deliberate failure to discharge a duty imposed by law for the safety of others. Wantonness imports a reckless and heedless disregard for the rights and safety of others. An act is wanton when it is done of wicked purpose, or when done needlessly, manifesting a reckless indifference to the rights of others.

Marsh v. Trotman (1989)

In Marsh, a tractor trailer driver weaved into oncoming traffic on a two-lane road and struck the car in which the plaintiff was riding. The plaintiff’s punitive damages claim was “based upon allegations that the tractor trailer was willfully and wantonly operated on the wrong side of the highway in the face of plaintiff's approaching vehicle in violation of several safety statutes, including G.S. 20-140, the reckless driving statute.” The court noted that the evidence did show that the truck driver

was merely inadvertent--either by failing to observe the approaching vehicles or the lay of the highway, by failing to control the vehicle, by failing to drive on the right half of the highway, or perhaps even by dropping off to sleep.

By including the scenario of “dropping off to sleep” in the instances of “mere inadvertence,” the court seemed to indicate that this scenario would not be included in willful or wanton conduct.

In the 2011 case George v. Greyhound Lines, the court of appeals used this language from Marsh to reinforce its conclusion that inadvertently falling asleep while driving did not support an award of punitive damages. In George, a Greyhound bus driver hit the rear of an RV. The evidence tended to show that the bus driver had fallen asleep before hitting the RV. The plaintiff based his claim for punitive damages

on allegations that [the bus driver] knew or should have known that he was overtired, sleepy, or otherwise not fit to operate the bus; that he continued to operate the bus and failed to remain awake and alert immediately prior to the collision; and that he fell asleep while operating the bus, causing the collision.

The plaintiff also noted that the bus driver violated a safety regulation by driving while so fatigued. The court agreed that the violation of the safety regulation could establish negligence per se, but that such violation does not “establish willful conduct per se. Instead, there must be sufficient evidence of a ‘deliberate purpose not to discharge a duty’ imposed by the safety regulation.”

Although the evidence in George was sufficient to show that the bus driver fell asleep, the court stated that “inadvertent driver error caused by falling asleep behind the wheel by itself does not support an award of punitive damages.” To support an award of punitive damages, the plaintiff would have to show that the bus driver

acted with a “deliberate purpose” not to discharge any duty imposed by [the safety regulation] or acted with a “reckless indifference” to the rights of others by talking on the telephone and failing to get sufficient rest before beginning his run.

If you or a loved one have been injured in a car accident, visit www.rflaw.net for legal help.

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