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Woman Killed in Car Accident in Gaston County

WSOC-TV reports that a woman was killed on Saturday night in Gaston County after a 17-year-old driver fell asleep while driving, according to officials. The woman was driving home with her three daughters when the car driven by the 17-year-old crossed the center line and collided head-on with the woman’s car. Two of the daughters travelling in the mother’s car were airlifted to the hospital and released shortly thereafter. The third daughter remains in the hospital and is in critical, but stable, condition. Sadly, the mother died at the scene of the accident, which was less than one mile from her home.

The 17-year old driver told officials that he fell asleep just before the crash. The driver’s father stated that he did not know the boy was asleep until after he crashed. Officials are investigating the boy’s phone to see whether he might have been texting or talking at the time of the accident. The investigating officer will meet with the district attorney on Wednesday to decide if any criminal charges should be filed.

Putting aside the criminal charges in a situation like this one, let’s consider the potential civil liability in the case of a fatigued driver. The negligence analysis 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(a) states that

Upon all highways of sufficient width a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the highway except as follows:

(1)    When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction under the rules governing such movement;

(2)    When an obstruction exists making it necessary to drive to the left of the center of the highway; provided, any person so doing shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the highway within such distance as to constitute an immediate hazard;

(3)    Upon a highway divided into three marked lanes for traffic under the rules applicable thereon; or

(4)    Upon a highway designated and signposted for one-way traffic.

Although the negligence analysis is simple, there is an additional issue of punitive damages that might arise in the case of a fatigued driver. Punitive damages are addressed by North Carolina statute. G.S. 1D-15(a) provides that

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.

In an automobile accident, the aggravating factor most typically present is “willful or wanton conduct.” G.S. 1D-5(7) defines “willful or wanton conduct” 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 further explained 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)

The question then becomes whether driving a car while so fatigued that the driver falls asleep while driving rises to the level of willful or wanton conduct. In 2011, the North Carolina Court of Appeals looked at this issue when it involved a commercial driver in George v. Greyhound Lines. In George, 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 court required the plaintiff 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.

We do not know whether the 17-year-old driver was talking on the phone or failed to get sufficient rest, and it is possible that these factors would not apply to a situation which does not involve a commercial bus driver who was paid to drive a scheduled route for the bus company.

Turning away from the issue of punitive damages, in the case of this weekend’s accident, there are other potential issues since the driver was under the age of 18. According to the WSOC-TV report, the boy had had his license for about a year. In North Carolina, people over the age of 16 who have been driving with a limited provisional license for at least 6 months may obtain a full provisional license. People with a full provisional license are not subject to the time, supervision and passenger restrictions that those with a limited provisional license are subject to. However, even if the driver had a full provisional license, he would be subject to the restriction on all drivers under the age of 18 which prohibits them from using a cell phone while driving.

G.S. 20-173.3(b) states that

Except as otherwise provided in this section, no person under the age of 18 years shall operate a motor vehicle on a public street or highway or public vehicular area while using a mobile telephone or any additional technology associated with a mobile telephone while the vehicle is in motion. This prohibition shall not apply to the use of a mobile telephone or additional technology in a stationary vehicle.

The article states that officials are investigating the boy’s cell phone usage at the time of the accident, but if he had been using a cell phone, he would have been violating a statute enacted for safety purposes, which would make him negligent per se. In that case, the violation of the statute shows the failure to comply with a duty to exercise reasonable care and only causation between the statute violation and the injury must be proven.

If you have been injured in a car accident, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450,  to discuss your options.

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