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Asleep at the Wheel: Commercial Truck and Train Accidents Caused by Sleep Apnea and Fatigue

A cup of coffee in the morning helps many Americans fight off fatigue after a restless night. But if you’re one of the nearly 18 million Americans suffering from sleep apnea, it will take more than some caffeine to remedy your ailment.

Sleep apnea is a medical condition that affects an individual’s breathing during sleep. The disorder causes people to stop breathing for extended periods of time and results in the sufferer awakening throughout the night to catch their breath. Needless to say, those suffering from sleep apnea fail to reap the benefits of a full night’s rest and are often severely fatigued throughout the next day.

Sleep apnea is a serious health problem that can be deadly if left untreated. Not only is it dangerous to the individual, but also to the general public. For example, a 2016 New Jersey train crash, which injured over 100 people, was caused by a train operator who likely suffered from sleep apnea, according to reports. Further, the crash was attributed to the operator’s fatigue brought on by chronic sleep apnea. This tragic event took place just three years after another sleep apnea related train crash occurred in New York.

To combat the serious issue of employees falling asleep while operating a vehicle, New Jersey Transit (NJT) implemented a policy requiring engineers to provide medical clearance before operating trains. Engineers suffering from sleep apnea must now provide medical certification that the condition has been corrected or controlled. NJT previously allowed engineers with sleep apnea to operate trains as long as the engineers were actively seeking treatment. The new policy is much stricter and is meant to prevent horrific crashes like the one in 2016.

Further, the Federal Railroad Administration is urging railroads to sufficiently screen and treat sleep apnea for all engineers. The administration first introduced this concept in 2004, and the NJT has followed suit. However, NJT officials could not confirm whether the operator in the 2016 train crash was screened for sleep apnea prior to the crash, citing medical privacy concerns.

NJT’s updated screening policy is mirrored after federal regulations for the same disorder for commercial airline pilots. The next logical question is when, if at all, will these same regulations be applied to commercial trucking?

Fatigue is one of the leading causes of trucking accidents in the United States. Truck drivers are responsible for hauling loads across the country, often without enough rest or adequate sleep. As a result, fatigue sets in and can lead to horrific accidents. The same principle, then, could easily apply to truck drivers who suffer from sleep apnea. Even if a truck driver abides by federally mandated rest requirements, a driver suffering from sleep apnea may still not be getting adequate rest. Lawmakers recognize the gravity of fatigue in the airline industry and are just now combating apnea-related railroad accidents, but these principles have not yet been fully applied to commercial trucking.

Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that can affect an individual’s ability to operate heavy machinery. The New Jersey crash injured over 100 people, including train passengers and railway workers alike. As a private citizen, an ordinary injury suit can be brought against a railroad, but Federal law provides special protection for railway employees injured by the hands of a railroad company. The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) is designed to help railroad workers recover for injuries sustained as the result of a railroad company’s negligence.

To succeed on a FELA claim, an injured worker must prove that the railroad was at least partly responsible for the worker’s injuries. The fact that the injured worker may also be partly to blame does not bar a FELA claim (as it might in a workers’ compensation claim), but it is important to remember an injured railway worker only has three years from the date of injury to properly bring his or her claim in court.

If you were injured by a railroad company, either as a private citizen or an employee of that railroad, call the personal injury attorneys at Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz to discuss your claim.