While it should have been a shock that federal prosecutors brought charges in early December against an Atlanta chiropractor for falsifying hundreds of truckers' medical exams, it wasn't. Over the years, our truck accident injury attorneys have come across cases where we were left wondering how a driver passed their mandatory bi-annual physical. In some of those instances, the answer was a doctor who pretty much passed everyone, regardless of their health.
Anthony Lefteris, an Atlanta area chiropractor, is accused of signing off on hundreds of fraudulent Department of Transportation mandated truck driver physicals. The exact number of physicals that were faked is not known at this time, although it is being reported that Mr. Lefteris conducted an average of 360 truck driver physicals a month, whereas the average doctor does only 13 or 14. It is also curious that Mr. Lefteris operated his practice out of a truck stop on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Just doing the math and assuming that a full physical takes a half-hour, it means that Mr. Lefteris would have had to do nothing but physicals for 45 hours a week, in order to have actually seen 360 truck drivers in a month. This seems highly doubtful, given that such efficiency is unattainable in the real world.
How did Mr. Lefteris achieve this kind of a "efficiency?" It is alleged that he skipped vision, hearing, and drug tests, which are required by the Department of Transportation. He allegedly filled out paperwork as if these tests were actually performed. If you take a step back and think about that for a moment, drivers with potential vision and hearing defects were certified medically fit to keep driving. This is to say nothing of the truck drivers with drug issues that remained undetected and kept drug addicts on the road.
It is unclear at this time what particular charges have been filed and the potential penalty Mr. Lefteris is facing. According to the Justice Department, Mr. Lefteris' arraignment will take place at a later date. What is clear is that a potentially large number of unfit drivers may have been allowed behind the wheel of 18-wheelers through Mr. Lefteris' sham practice.
Department of Transportation Physicals Are In Place to Improve Road Safety
Most everyone will plainly see the dishonesty of a physician signing off on physicals that were never actually performed, but most will be left wondering why it's a big deal. The answer is simple. As a society we recognize that operating large vehicles is inherently dangerous. For that reason, we permit the government, through the Department of Transportation, to set certain standards that have to be met in order for people to safely operate large vehicles.
Regardless of one's political affiliation, the idea that operators of large and dangerous vehicles should meet basic health standards seems like a no-brainer. We don't want people on death's doorstep flying our planes, conducting our trains, or operating fully-loaded 40-ton commercial vehicles. The potential damage to others is just too great to not take small, common sense steps to minimize those risks. For that reason, commercial truck drivers are required to undergo a bi-annual physical. For drivers who have had health issues, they have to be examined more frequently, between every 3 to 12 months depending on their condition and how they are responding to treatment.
As they pertain to commercial drivers, these rules are a mechanism where obviously unfit drivers are kept off the roads. This in turn makes the roads safer for everyone, commercial and non-commercial drivers alike. When a medical professional, such as Mr. Lefteris, undermines this system and doesn't properly conduct exams, it puts all of us at risk.
How Big Is the Problem of Improper Truck Driver Physicals?
While we don't know how long Mr. Lefteris was operating in this manner, we know based upon the volume of his practice that he was letting over 4,000 improperly vetted drivers a year operate on our roads.
I'm not suggesting that each and every one of these drivers is someone who shouldn't be on the road. In all likelihood a fair number of these drivers would have passed their physical anyway and were merely going to Mr. Lefteris because his practice was conveniently located.
However, it would strain credulity to believe that everyone who "passed" their physical should have. The real problem with practices like these isn't that they may let a few unqualified drivers on the roads, but that these scams tend to snowball and magnify problems. The root of this phenomenon is in human behavior.
Truck drivers are a community and they talk to one another. Aside from actual networks among drivers who know each other in the real world, there are uncountable numbers of message boards, a fair number of which are dedicated to gaming the system. We came across an online forum just last year where truck drivers were talking about ways to cheat mandatory drug screening, which is supposed to be part of every physical.
All of this is to say that the damage caused by Mr. Lefteris' practice has the potential to multiply given the ease with which drivers can share information with one another. Suppose you're a truck driver with high blood pressure. You've failed your physical once and are given a 3-month card, which allows you to continue driving while addressing the problem. You know that if you fail the next physical, you could lose your livelihood.
Then in your desperation, you receive word that there's someone out there who has "easier physicals" than others. Are you going back to your regular doctor, or are you going to the person who you know is going to pass you?
There's a reason that we don't have a voluntary self-reporting system for driver medical conditions; drivers have a strong financial interest in staying on the road, even at the risk of their health. This isn't to pick on truck drivers, when the fact is that none of use can possibly be unbiased when our interests are at stake. In my own work experience, I've seen people work on broken legs, with serious illnesses, and even one guy who tried to hide that he was practically going blind, all to keep working. The truth is that none of us can be trusted not to cut corners when our livelihood is on the line, which is why independent evaluations, like thorough, well-conducted physicals for commercial drivers, are vital to road safety.
Thinking about the conflict of interest and the strong incentive less than healthy drivers have to find any means to keep feeding their families, we can begin to see that it is very likely that Mr. Lefteris became a means for drivers in questionable health to stay on the road. While we sympathize with their plight, we've also seen too many accident victims to know that their isn't a price to be paid for their desperation.
It would scare the heck out of the public if someone was fabricating pilot physicals, it shouldn't be any different for truck drivers, especially hundreds or thousands of drivers who are too sick to drive.
Even looking beyond legitimate medical problems like heart disease, poor vision, and other chronic conditions, DoT mandated physicals are designed to catch truck drivers with drug problems. The most chilling part of the charges against Mr. Lefteris is that he did not actually conduct drug screenings. Even if the larger community of truck drivers who have health issues is relatively honest, but desperate, the same cannot be said for truck drivers with drug problems. Anyone, who drives under the influence of drugs, whether a commercial driver or anyone else on the road, obviously is putting their own selfishness ahead of those with whom they share the road.
The big unanswered question in the Lefteris case is who employed the truck drivers who were passed without proper screening? This is an important question because it could expose lax oversight on the part of trucking companies. This is important for accident victims, because after a commercial truck accident, every trucking company and their insurers always claim that the company did everything in their power to prevent the accident, it was just the result of some unforeseeable event.
While it seems unlikely that a larger truck company would be sending their drivers to a chiropractor operating out of a truck stop, it wouldn't surprise us if smaller companies, desperate for drivers and loyal to those who have worked for them over the years, might not be complicit in referring drivers with health conditions to doctors who are known to pass drivers, regardless of their health. There is no evidence for this at this time, but the incentives certainly line up. If such a scenario were to play out, most of the trucking companies defenses would fall apart.
Letting an unhealthy driver continue to operate on the road is negligent supervision. This is the legal term for when companies fail in their duty to ensure that their employees don't pose an unnecessarily dangerous risk to the public. Rather than say, "Hey, you can't let that person on the road," the law says that such drivers shouldn't be on the road, but if they are, the employer bears responsibility.
If a trucking company referred drivers to Mr. Lefteris for the purpose of getting a sick driver certified, then that company engaged in a civil conspiracy. A civil conspiracy occurs when 2 or more people enter into a scheme to circumvent the law. In this case, the relevant laws would be the DoT mandates that truckers undergo bi-annual physicals.
For those who may have been injured by unqualified drivers who Mr. Lefteris let loose on the roads, these legal avenues can be the difference between getting compensation for their injuries, or getting stuck with a mountain of medical bills and other expenses that can occur in a serious commercial truck accident.
As a truck accident law firm, we have seen too many cases where company oversight was either shoddy or non-existent.
I bring this up not to smear the industry, which has a number of fantastic operators who do a great and vital job. Instead, I merely mention these things, along with the alleged criminal conduct of Mr. Lefteris to illustrate that there are bad actors out there. It is these people and organizations who pose a threat to all of us. The price for their irresponsible behavior is often not paid in dollars, but in lives and blood.
If the charges against Mr. Lefteris are true and proven, we can only hope that his sentence is commensurate with the danger he has exposed all of us to. It should also send a message to other doctors who think that they can get away with faking vitally important DoT physicals that like any other criminal, they will end up in jail. Failure to adequately police the very safety procedures designed to protect us renders them moot and ineffective, which in turn places us all at greater risks.
Regardless of the outcome of this case, it is heartening to see that some in the government take the issue of 18-wheeler safety seriously. Even the best regulations in the world can't make a difference if their enforcement is not a priority. As a truck accident law firm, we stand ready to help the victims of commercial truck accidents, but at the same time acknowledge it would be better if steps were taken to ensure that these accidents don't happen in the first place. If the charges against Mr. Lefteris are true, it is a small but important step towards safer roads.