Can Employers Be Held Liable for Auto Accidents Caused by Tired Employees?

On April 2, 2009, the Appellate Division in Riley v. Keenan, et al., considered the issue of whether an employer can be held liable for an auto accident caused by a tired employee that fell asleep at the wheel while driving home.  While the Appellate Division did not find that the defendant’s employer could be held liable under the circumstances of this case, the Court did leave open the possibility that an employer could be held liable for an accident caused by a sleep-deprived employee under circumstances where the employer’s actions create a foreseeable risk that the employee’s ability to drive safely would be impaired.  Any accident victim in New Jersey should contact a New Jersey personal injury lawyer or New Jersey auto accident lawyer for an evaluation of their case.

In this case, defendant John Keenan lost control of his automobile while driving in the westbound lane of Route 40 in Pittsgrove.  Defendant’s vehicle swerved into the eastbound lane and crashed head-on into a vehicle driven by plaintiff Laurie Riley.  The accident caused permanent and severe injuries to Laurie Riley.  A blood alcohol test conducted on the night of the accident revealed that defendant Keenan had a blood alcohol level of .178.  An expert testified at trial that defendant Keenan’s blood alcohol level at the time of the accident would have been approximately .16. 

Defendant worked as a truck driver, and his shifts would normally start at 3:30 a.m. and finish approximately 10 hours later, within the maximum driving time mandated by federal regulations.  However, on many occasions, after finishing his driving shift, defendant would do mechanical work on trucks at his employer’s yard, for which he was paid overtime.  The defendant testified that in the month that the accident occurred, defendant had been working 120 to 130 hours per week; however, the defendant had not worked any mechanic hours during the week prior to the accident.  On the day of the accident, after working a 10-hour shift, defendant went to a local bar and consumed several beers. 

In addition to seeking recovery from the bars that served alcohol to defendant under New Jersey’s dram shop laws, the plaintiffs also argued that defendant’s employer should be held liable because the sleep deprivation suffered by defendant due to his long working hours created a foreseeable risk that defendant’s ability to drive home would be impaired.  The plaintiff relied on the testimony of a fatigue expert, who opined that the combination of defendant’s intoxication with fatigue caused the accident, and that the confluence of these two factors acted to impair defendant’s ability to drive more than either condition could on its own.

In analyzing this case, the Appellate Division first noted that no New Jersey court has ever permitted liability to be imposed on an employer for an accident caused by a fatigued employee while driving home from work.  However, the Appellate Division noted that other states that have dealt with this issue have found liability in certain circumstances.  For example, an Oregon court held an employer liable for an accident caused by an employee.  In the Oregon case, the employee was a high school student who worked a 17 hour shift in violation of the employer’s policy that high school students should not work more than one shift if working past midnight.  In another case, a West Virginia court found an employer liable for an accident caused by a nineteen-year-old employee who fell asleep while driving home after working 27 straight hours.  

The Appellate Division noted that the most important factor in all cases that have dealt with this issue was whether the employer owed a duty to the plaintiff because the employer had created a foreseeable risk of harm.  In cases where there was a long period of time between the end of the employee’s shift and the accident, courts have generally found that there is no foreseeable risk of harm, and therefore no liability.  Conversely, in cases where the risk of harm was foreseeable to the employer, a court might impose liability on the employer.  After applying this formulation to the facts in this case, the Appellate Division found no basis for imposing liability.  Nevertheless, the Appellate Division left open the possibility that, under the right circumstances, New Jersey courts could impose liability on an employer for an accident caused by a tired employee who falls asleep while driving home from work.