The U.S. Supreme Court's declination to review an appellate decision in Parker v. Crete Carrier Corp. is likely to result in more sleep apnea testing for truck drivers nationally.
In Parker, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit affirmed the trial court's summary judgment in favor of a trucking carrier who fired a truck driver who refused to be tested for the condition. The trucker had argued his rights per the Americans with Disabilities Act were violated because he was ordered to take the test after it was revealed he had a body mass index over 35 - a known risk factor for sleep apnea, as identified by recommendations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
The FMCSA does not as of yet have any rules mandating sleep apnea testing for drivers, though it does now recommend it for drivers who have either a BMI over 40 or a BMI over 33 with other risk factors (i.e., smoking, family history of sleep apnea, smoking, being over age 40, having a large neck, etc.). Still, carriers may have been largely reluctant to require new or existing employee truckers to undergo the testing, fearing they might potentially be sued for possible employment law violations.
Now, that concern has been largely abated.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a breathing-related disorder that causes short interruptions in breathing throughout one's sleep - up to 400 times in a night. A person may have no idea they are suffering from it, as they are not awake when it happens. Still, the condition can prevent a person from obtaining adequate REM sleep, which is necessary for proper rest. It can also be potentially fatal if left undiagnosed and untreated.
Some symptoms may include:
- Loud snoring;
- Morning nausea and headaches;
- Chocking and gasping while asleep;
- Excessive daytime sleep;
- Disturbed sleep;
- Frequent need to urinate at night;
- Irritability or feelings of depression.
Usually, the condition has to be diagnosed by a sleep study, which can cost upward of $1,200. The appellate court took no issue with the driver of the small carrier being compelled to pay for the test out-of-pocket.
Why Sleep Apnea is So Dangerous for Truckers
Approximately 1 in 5 truck accidents in Columbus and elsewhere occur due to fatigued driving. Sleep apnea is known to cause excessive fatigue for sufferers. Even if a driver does not fall asleep behind the wheel, there is a possible risk of being less alert and having a higher propensity for distraction. These are both factors that can lead to a deadly truck accident.
When crashes involve fatigued truckers, trucking companies can be either (or both) vicariously and directly liable. Vicarious liability is imposed based on the trucker's employment relationship and the doctrine of respondeat superior, which is Latin for "let the master answer." But there could also be direct liability in cases where there is evidence of negligent hiring or supervision. If there is an indication the trucking company knew or should have known the driver was a risk for sleep apnea or had the condition and yet failed to require treatment, this could be grounds to assert direct liability.
Although sleep apnea is a medical condition, the Lehman rule (established via the 1956 Ohio Supreme Court decision in Lehman v. Haynam) would not likely apply as a defense to truck drivers who fell asleep at the wheel due to the condition because sleep apnea - particularly if it's been diagnosed - is known to cause severe tiredness. The Lehman rule holds that if the driver of a vehicle is suddenly stricken by an episode of unconsciousness for which he has no reason to anticipate and it renders him unable to control the vehicle, he will not be charged with negligence due to lack of control.