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How Do Lawyers Use DOT Truck Driver Physicals in Lawsuits?

By: Mike Grossman, Texas Injury Attorney

How DOT Truck Driver Physicals Work - And How Attorneys Use These Tests As Evidence In Lawsuits

When a commercial truck is involved in an accident that injures another person, one piece of evidence that needs to be considered is the record of a driver's federally mandated medical exam. These exams make sure the driver is at the proper fitness level to safely carry out their job and not put themselves or others at risk by having a medical emergency that results in an accident while driving a commercial vehicle.

Questions Answered on This Page

  • Why do truck drivers have to have physical examinations done on a routine basis?
  • How does this medical exam keep the roads safe for truckers and other drivers?
  • What happens if there's an accident involving a driver not medically fit to drive?
  • What physical or medical conditions impact a trucker's ability to drive?

What Does The Law Say About Truck Driver Physicals?

Federal regulations require drivers to be in good health and to have their wellbeing inspected every 24 months. Further, 49 U.S.C. § 31149 is a federal law that establishes a council of medical professionals whose job it is to determine what constitutes a healthy trucker vs. an unhealthy one, and create guidelines, based on which the government creates regulations designed to keep unhealthy truckers off the road. The important takeaway here is that doctors, rather than politicians, ultimately determine which conditions are serious enough to keep a driver off the road and which conditions are not likely to interfere with a trucker's ability to safely operate their vehicle.

The whole body of rules and regulations pertaining to truck driver medical exams is quite vast, but here's the gist:

  • Truck drivers are not allowed to operate a commercial vehicle unless they are generally healthy.
  • Truckers are required to have a new physical exam conducted every 24 months.
  • There are a host of specific illnesses and ailments that can disqualify someone from driving commercial vehicles, including:
    • Certain variations of diabetes
    • Certain respiratory illnesses
    • Severe obesity
    • Alcoholism
    • Various heart conditions
    • Significant hearing or vision problems
  • Even if a trucker was issued a clean bill of health at their last physical and their next required physical is many months away, federal law requires truckers to voluntarily take themselves out of service if they develop one of these serious conditions in the interval between exams.

In the event of an accident, if an investigation reveals that the driver failed to divulge relevant medical information during their physical exam, the following guidance from the federal agency regulating commercial transportation applies:

FMCSA relies on the medical examiner's clinical judgment to decide whether additional information should be obtained from the driver's treating physician. Deliberate omission or falsification of information may invalidate the examination and any certificate issued based on it. A civil penalty may also be levied against the driver, either for making a false statement or for concealing a disqualifying condition.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration FAQ Page

Notwithstanding the impact that obvious conditions such as blindness or deafness have on a trucker's performance, the main issue that regulators are trying to protect the public from is incapacitated truck drivers. Whether a truck driver has a heart attack, a seizure, slips into a diabetic coma, or falls asleep at the wheel because of a sleep apnea-induced poor sleeping the night before, the one hazard that all of these conditions present is that the driver loses the ability to control his vehicle, and usually rather abruptly. Since this happens with surprising regularity and perhaps hundreds of accidents each year are caused by truckers who become incapacitated behind the wheel, government intervention to prevent drivers with serious medical conditions from driving is clearly in the public interest.

Who Conducts Truck Driver Physicals?

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, physical examination for truck drivers have to be conducted by a licensed medical examiner. The term medical examiner, as used in the common vernacular, refers to someone who examines corpses to determine how they died, but in the language of the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Act, this term of art simply means "a licensed medical professional." The types of medical examiners that are legally allowed to conduct a physical include:

  • Doctors of Medicine
  • Doctors of Osteopathy
  • Physician Assistants
  • Advanced Practice Nurses
  • Doctors of Chiropractic

As you would imagine, federal law also specifies how the physical exam is to be performed. The foundation of the exam is Form MCSA-5875; the standardized medical examination form to be used by doctors when evaluating a trucker's fitness.

Here is an example of the Form MCSA-5875:

Medical exam form used for truck drivers.
Click on the image to see the full-sized version of the form.

How does a truck driver's physical exam play into a commercial truck accident lawsuit?

Regarding the importance of the DOT physical examination, the FMCSA says:

The FMCSA physical examination is required to help ensure that a person is medically qualified to safely operate a CMV. In the interest of public safety, CMV drivers are held to higher physical, mental and emotional standards than passenger car drivers.

In addition to the federal government's view of the matter, common law legal principals hold that truckers owe a duty to the general public to refrain from operating a commercial vehicle if they are not healthy enough to do so. When an accident is caused by a truck driver who suffered from a medical condition, trucking companies will usually argue that it was just a freak occurrence that couldn't have been predicted, and that they shouldn't be held liable for something they couldn't have foreseen. Sometimes that's true, but the vast majority of times a truck driver's physical exams will show worse and worse results over a period of time if they are developing serious health problems, and it's the responsibility of their trucker and their employer to recognize this trend, as well as take action to get a medically unqualified driver off the road.

Think of it like this. Imagine that police officers can only carry a firearm if they can shoot at 85% accuracy, as tested every two years. Officer Jones starts working for the Dallas police and he shoots at a solid 95%. Two years later he gets tested again, and he is still at 95%. Two more years go by and suddenly his shooting drops to 92%. Then 90%. Then 87%. Yes, he's still passing, but if his supervisors are doing their jobs correctly, they should recognize that he is getting worse BEFORE he backslides so much that he has to be taken out of service.

The same principle applies to truck drivers. If a trucker's employer can tell that, even though a truck driver is still meeting the minimum requirements, his health is getting worse and worse, it is not fair or reasonable for the trucking company to suggest that they could not have predicted that an accident caused by, say, a heart attack behind the wheel, was unforeseeable. Returning to the Officer Jones analogy, if his employers were truly concerned about public safety, they would not wait until he reaches an essentially failing grade to try and fix his accuracy problem. No, they should recognize that he is getting worse and fix the problem long before he sinks below the minimum standards.

What does this mean for you as a victim? If an accident was caused by a truck driver who went into shock due to complications from being a type 2 diabetic or having some other serious medical problem, seeing what the medical professionals had to say on the driver's last few physical exams and how seriously his employer took the warning signs of his condition would be an important part of proving their liability for the crash. Physical exams are just one piece of evidence that can be gathered in the process of working through a truck accident case.

Why an Experienced Attorney is Helpful in a Truck Accident Case

Grossman Law Offices has over 25 years of experience handling truck accident cases, including those caused by foreseeable medical conditions. We're confident that we can help you or your loved one if they're been injured as a result of a commercial truck accident. Don't think you have to figure this out on your own. We have experienced attorneys ready to answer whatever questions you may have 24/7. Give us a call at (855) 326-0000.

Here are some other articles about the various types of evidence used in truck accident cases:

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