A Truck Driver's Medical Records Can Be a Vital Source of Evidence in a Commercial Vehicle Accident Lawsuit.
Commercial trucking companies owe a duty to all of us to make sure that their drivers do not pose a danger on the highway. A serious risk is posed by truckers who drive while suffering from certain medical conditions. While it is dangerous when anyone with a serious medical condition gets behind the wheel, the stakes are exponentially higher when that person is guiding 40 tons of truck and cargo down the road at 75 miles per hour. When you are dealing with 18-wheelers, certain medical emergencies can not only be fatal to the truck driver, but pose a potentially unnecessary risk to every one who uses a road. When trucking companies know that a driver is a health risk to the rest of us, choose to ignore that risk, and tragedy unnecessarily strikes an unsuspecting driver, that behavior often crosses the line from unforeseeable accident to negligence.
But when an accident is caused by (or suspected to have been caused by) a medical emergency, the the tricky part is that you must be able to prove that the medical condition was something that the trucking company knew about and that they took an unnecessary risk. Otherwise, a medical emergency is an unforeseen situation that juries are reluctant to hold anyone liable for, even if the outcome of the medical emergency is the death or injury of an innocent person. As such, the truck accident attorneys at Grossman Law Offices will guide you through what you need to know about how a truck driver's medical history can serve as evidence in your case.
Questions answered on this page:
- What are common medical conditions, which can lead to truck accidents?
- How does a personal injury attorney investigate a truck driver's medical history?
- What can a thorough investigation of a trucker's medical history add to your truck accident injury case?
- How can you prove whether or not a truck accident was caused by a medical condition?
- When are trucking companies liable for medical conditions and when is it just considered to be a genuine "accident?"
Investigating the medical history of a trucker.
When a trucking company hires a truck driver, it is required by federal regulation to conduct a physical. The purpose of the physical is to make sure that the truck driver does not possess any disqualifying medical conditions. Some of the more obvious disqualifying conditions would include very poor vision or hearing, or diabetes, which is severe enough to need insulin shots.
When Grossman Law Offices begins looking into the medical records of a truck driver who is involved in an accident, the three most common major health issues that come up are:
- Sleep apnea- A sleep disorder, which can lead to sleepiness and fatigue. This is particularly dangerous because it can lead to slower response times for drivers.
- Epilepsy- A neurological disease, which can lead to seizures. It certainly is shocking to think that people with a history of epilepsy can be hired by a commercial trucking company, but it happens, even though as many as 30% of people who are diagnosed with epilepsy do not respond to any treatment.
- Heart attacks- Of course, heart attacks can happen to anyone without warning. However, if a driver is on his third or fourth heart attack, or has other signs in his medical history that suggest a heart attack is imminent, it becomes a lot harder to suggest that a trucking company could not have foreseen the potential for danger. More commonly, high blood pressure issues are documented as required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Depending on a driver's blood pressure, FMCSA regulations require that a driver undergo physicals more frequently, between every 3 and every 6 months. A full list oh health requirements for 18-wheeler drivers can be found in Section § 391.41 in the Code of Federal Regulations.
The questions we're usually trying to answer in our investigation of a driver's medical history is whether or not any of those (or other serious conditions) were known by the driver or their employer? If the answer is "yes," then we must answer the question of what was done to mitigate the risk of this driver's medical condition hurting someone?
How we answer the question of, "Did the truck driver or their employer have reason to believe that the trucker's had a medical condition that could be dangerous to other motorists?"
As the American philosopher Denzel Washington once said, "It's not what you know, it's what you can prove." To prove that a trucker should not have been on the road and that their employer should have known about it, a great truck accident attorney will review all relevant hiring documents, past physical exams, and relevant employee reviews that may indicate the presence of a medical issue.
When it comes to hiring documents, these are important because often when a trucking company needs a driver, in their rush to fill the position, they can skip vital steps in the hiring process. While the majority of trucking companies are thorough and professional, it is not uncommon for less savory actors to avoid asking questions, which would prevent them from hiring someone. Often this means that trucking companies will not even ask the most basic questions of why a driver left their previous job. You would be surprised how many times it turns out that a driver was fired by a previous employer for having a potentially dangerous medical condition, but allowed to drive by a new carrier because, "wink, wink," they didn't know about any medical issues. These dishonest companies suppose that if they do their best ostrich impression, burying their head in the sand when it comes to a potential disqualifying medical condition, then if something does wrong, they can just say, "Well, we didn't know that he had sleep apnea, it wasn't our fault he was on the road."
Of course, if the driver was fired from a previous job for falling asleep behind the wheel, or showed increased risk for heart attacks during a physical, such as outrageously high cholesterol or blood pressure, or even a series of minor heart attacks or strokes, which were reported to the company, then the trucking company owed all of us a duty to keep the driver off the road. We completely sympathize with someone whose skill is driving commercial vehicles doing what it takes to feed their families. Truckers are only human, and under the threat of a disqualifying medical condition, it is easy to imagine that they might be tempted to not do what the law requires of them. That is why trucking companies are supposed to be the backstop to prevent these drivers from getting behind the wheel. It is not much different than how we hold bars accountable for the damage that results from their negligent alcohol service. When a company recklessly exposes the public to danger and it results in injury to others, the accidents that result are not "things that are bound to happen," rather those injuries are the result of negligence.
How we answer the question of, "What steps were taken to protect the public from the driver's medical condition?"
We understand that lots of folks have medical problems. Even for truck drivers, a medical issue is not necessarily the end of their career. For example, within the past several years the Federal Aviation Administration changed their rules to allow pilots to report if they are suffering from depression, without necessarily ending their careers. The thinking behind this is that it is better for a pilot to receive treatment for a medical condition, than attempt to hide it and put others in danger. A similar principle applies to truck drivers.
If a truck driver suffers from a potentially dangerous medical condition and steps were taken to mitigate that danger, such as a treatment regimen, a modified schedule, and monitoring, then the trucking company's liability is greatly reduced. Of course, part of any mitigation strategy is enforcement. You would be surprised how many times we investigate a trucking company, find out that there was a health risk mitigation plan, and find out that no one was bothering to follow the plan, or that the driver would ignore the plan without any consequences. Any such plan has to have teeth and when it doesn't, the company can be held to account for the choices it made that put the rest of us in danger. It is when companies adopt a "hire and pray strategy," and those prayers go unanswered, that the company becomes negligent.
Of course, to find any of this information out, you need an experienced injury attorney, because if you call up a truck driver's doctor on your own to ask for medical records, the doctor's office is going to claim doctor-patient confidentiality and deny your request. Similarly, a trucking company will rightfully assert the privacy rights of the driver if you personally inquire about a driver's medical conditions or mitigation plans. The only way for that information to come to light, and help you hold a reckless trucking company accountable, is through the power of subpoenas. An investigation without subpoena power is like trying to move into a house before you get the keys, your purpose will be thwarted by locked doors.
For instance, in one case we litigated, a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a car, causing serious injuries to the vehicle's occupants. As it turned out, the reason that the truck driver fell asleep at the wheel was because he suffered from sleep apnea, stemming from obesity. What ultimately led to his employer's legal downfall was that we were able to prove that the defendant never bothered to ask why he was fired from his previous job. If they had, then they would have learned that he was fired because he had fallen asleep at the wheel several times in the past. The employer did not offer this information up from the goodness of his heart, it only came to light because he was subpoenaed and had to tell the truth under penalty of perjury. A great truck accident injury lawyer scours every source of medical evidence including:
- Past employer records related to the driver
- Physicals of the driver
- Eyewitness accounts testifying against the driver's fitness
Finally, our investigations gain access to records of any previous accidents, as well as their stated causes. It is very difficult for a private individual to obtain information about previous accidents that a driver was involved in. Sometimes this is the key to an entire case, because if a past medical condition is found among these previous accidents, then your claim will have a much greater chance of success. For example, if the truck driver in question is an epileptic who had a known history of seizures while working for another carrier, it is all but required for the most current employer of that individual to take action to demonstrate that this driver could no longer reasonably considered a danger behind the wheel.
How this investigation benefits your 18-wheeler claim.
In order to successfully prove that the trucking company owes you compensation for your injuries, it must be shown that they were negligent in some form or another. If your injuries were the result of a driver's medical emergency, which could have been foreseen by his employer, that most likely is the bedrock of a strong case. In those cases, the difference between a thorough investigation of a driver's medical records and a poor one is the difference between holding a trucking company accountable, or letting your claim slip away.
I think we all know that what you see on television is not really how court cases work. Television skips over the nuts and bolts investigation that makes up the vast majority of legal work. There is a reason that fewer than 10% of lawsuits ever go to trial, because by the time the investigation is over, the defendant usually knows whether they are in a position to have a case tossed out altogether, thus avoiding a trial, or whether there is a bunch of evidence they never want a jury to see, and they settle. That is what makes every investigative avenue so crucial to the ultimate success of your case. Since cases only reach a courtroom 10% of the time, that means in 90% of cases your attorneys investigative skills are far more important than courtroom skill, which will never get used.
If are ready for us to get your investigation started...
Whether you are in Dallas, Texas or anywhere else in the country, you can reach us at all hours at our toll-free number, (855) 326-0000. We never charge for consultations and will keep our conversation strictly confidential.
You may be interested in these related 18-wheeler accident articles:
- Understanding The Opposition: Trucking Companies
- How Do Depositions Work in Truck Accident Cases?
- How Trucking Companies Dodge Responsibility: Blaming Road Conditions