A trucking company cannot be held liable for punitive damages because it knew of a driver’s history of sleep apnea. The Court granted motion for summary judgment in Achey v. Crete Carrier Corporation, No. 07-cv-3592 (E.D.Pa., Decision of March 30, 2009 – Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania). In Achey, Plaintiff sought punitive damages against the carrier based upon alleged negligent/reckless entrustment. Plaintiff based the claim upon the continued employment of a driver who was diagnosed with sleep apnea. The driver testified that he had been diagnosed with sleep apnea in 1992, but denied any noticeable effect on his driving ability. He further testified that he underwent surgery for the condition in 1992, but felt no difference in his level of fatigue.
It was “hotly disputed” whether the driver had sleep apnea as of the time of the accident. The Court held, however, that even if he did and if fatigue and drowsiness was a symptom of sleep apnea (which the Court found it was not according to The Merck Manual), the Court could not find any evidence that the driver ever suffered from the symptoms of fatigue or drowsiness as a result of the alleged sleep apnea condition. The Court stated that merely because the driver suffered some snoring as a result of sleep apnea, and at some point experienced drowsiness does not mean the drowsiness was because of the sleep apnea condition.
The Court noted that Plaintiff had not presented an expert who linked the sleep apnea to the drowsiness. Absent expert testimony, the Court would not make the leap to connect the two. Plaintiff had attempted to use its transportation safety expert to make the connection. That expert opined that cumulative fatigue and sleep apnea of the driver were contributing causes of the accident. A motion in limine was filed challenging the transportation expert’s qualification for such opinions. In response to the motion in limine, Plaintiff agreed to withdraw his opinions on sleep apnea and/or cumulative fatigue and whether either factor contributed to the accident.
Absent any qualified expert opinion on this issue, Plaintiff’s claim failed and summary judgment was granted. Plaintiff further asserted a claim for punitive damages based upon the carrier’s alleged awareness of the driver’s risk for falling asleep at the wheel based upon his record. The Court granted the motion for summary judgment based upon the lack of any evidence that carrier had a conscious appreciation of the risk. The Court noted that the driver had been deemed medically qualified by his successive DOT physicals. While there was a reported of history of sleep apnea that was treated, there was no evidence that the carrier knew or should have known that the driver might fall asleep at the wheel.
Plaintiff next tried to make the nexus by arguing that violations on the drivers operating record should have alerted the carrier. The Court again rejected the violations as evidence of the carrier’s conscious appreciation of the risk of the driver experiencing fatigue behind the wheel. It was argued, and the Court noted, that there was no evidence of any violation of the hours-of service regulations by the driver with regard to this accident. Accordingly the Court granted motion for summary judgment.