Falling Asleep at the Wheel

A truck driver was convicted of “homicide by vehicle” because he drove his 18-wheel tractor-trailer on an interstate highway, “blacked out or fell asleep,” drifted onto the shoulder, and struck another truck legally parked on the shoulder, killing the other driver.

The truck driver appealed his conviction and focused on the fact that no competent evidence existed of whether he suddenly blacked out or, instead, more slowly nodded off behind the wheel. The truck driver claimed that drivers who fall asleep are clearly reckless because they ignore the progressive signs that they are being overpowered by sleepiness. But according to the truck driver’s argument on appeal, because blacking out happens suddenly and is beyond the driver’s control, it is not grossly negligent or reckless behavior.

The appeals court firmly stated that all “drivers have an unflagging duty either to remain vigilant and awake or to immediately desist from driving.” The court also decided that the prosecution cannot be expected to prove whether a driver blacked out suddenly or fell asleep more normally. Noting that “it is common knowledge that sleep is preceded by some internal warning,” the court found it reasonable to conclude that a person who falls asleep driving, whether slowly or suddenly, is in ‘such a state of exhaustion’ that he or she knows or should know that falling asleep is likely. The court also observed that if the truck driver had in fact blacked out, it was highly unlikely that this was the first and only occasion, and that any history of sudden blackouts should persuade drivers that they are incapable of safe driving.

The combination of driving in a reckless or grossly negligent manner and violating the Motor Vehicle Code results in liability for the very serious crime of homicide by vehicle. Homicide by vehicle is not an intentional crime; instead, it occurs when a driver is reckless or grossly negligent but has no intention to injure or kill. In holding the truck driver responsible for homicide by vehicle, the court concluded that interstate tractor-trailer drivers have the capacity to “inflict devastating harm’ on other drivers, All drivers, whether behind the wheel of a car or a tractor-trailer, can be found guilty of homicide by vehicle if they lose consciousness while driving and cause a death.

Resolution of legal issues depends upon many factors, including variations of facts and interpretations of Pennsylvania law. This newsletter is not intended to provide legal advice on specific subjects, but rather to provide insight into legal developments and issues. The reader should always consult with legal counsel before taking action on matters covered by this newsletter.

Write a Reply or Comment