Safety and OSHA News

Fell asleep at wheel, crashed, leg amputated: Workers’ comp?

If a worker’s injury is caused by a company truck crash after he fell asleep at the wheel, does the employee qualify for workers’ comp benefits? 

Brandon Kelly worked for Advanced Sheet Metal in Hudson, NH. He traveled to job sites in a company truck.

On March 16, 2012, after working at one job site, Kelly left for the company shop where he would unload the truck. While driving, he fell asleep and hit a utility poll. As a result of the crash, his lower leg was amputated.

Kelly applied for workers’ comp benefits. His employer’s insurance company denied his claim. Following a hearing, the New Hampshire Department of Labor awarded benefits.

The company appealed to the state workers’ comp board (CAB) which denied the claim on a 2-1 decision. The majority ruled Kelly’s injuries did not arise out of his employment. The CAB found his injury was caused by a “mixed risk,” and that Kelly failed to prove his “abnormal weariness” was caused by his employment.

Kelly appealed, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard his case.

Risk increased by employment?

“Mixed risk” workplace injuries involve a personal risk and an employment risk which combine to result in an employee injury.

Example: A person with heart disease dies because of employment-related strain on his heart.

Not all mixed-risk injuries are compensable. To qualify, employment must also be a substantial contributing factor to the injury.

The state’s highest court didn’t agree with the CAB that Kelly had to “prove work-induced weariness as a prerequisite to receiving compensation in this case.”

“There can be no question that the injurious effects of falling asleep were increased by the environment in which [Kelly] found himself at the time he fell asleep – behind the wheel of a moving truck,” the court wrote in its opinion. “We have no difficulty concluding on this record, as a matter of law, that [Kelly’s] employment was a substantial contributing factor to the injury.”

The court noted allowing workers’ comp benefits in Kelly’s case would be “in accord” with decisions in other states, including Michigan and Oregon. Besides that, workers’ comp law isn’t based on fault. The court wrote:

“Even if we were to assume that [Kelly] was negligent in choosing to drive and in falling asleep while doing so, barring recovery on that basis would be contrary to the remedial purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Law.”

The court ruled Kelly’s injury did arise out of his employment, therefore he should receive workers’ comp.

What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.

(Appeal of Brandon Kelly, The Supreme Court of New Hampshire, No. 2013-867, 3/20/15)

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Comments

  1. I don’t understand their reasoning. If this came “out of” his employment and they are saying that sitting in the company truck increased his risk of drowsiness and therefore contributed to his injury, then what can the company do, in the future to prevent a occurrence? Can they have their employees fill out a log book documenting that they are getting sleep at night? Is there a device capable of testing the alertness of the person before getting in to the vehicle? Is there any kind of safety device which will turn off the truck and guide it to a safe stop should the driver fall asleep? Has there been other employees at this company who have fallen asleep while driving to demonstrate that this was not particular to this one individual driver and was actually a hazard the company should have to mitigate? And what is the difference between a company truck and a personal truck that puts the driver at a higher risk for falling asleep? The vast majority of people driving any kind of truck, personal or company, don’t fall asleep while driving. If they did then it’d be a bloodbath on the roads.
    This court has continued the trend of absolving an employee of any personal responsibility and placed a huge financial burden on a company who’s only fault was in being in business in that state. At least, that’s my opinion of it.

    • I understand your what you mean but Worker’s Comp is a “no-fault” system and negligence cannot be a determining factor.

      • My question was, now that the court has determined that this arose “out of” his employment, how does a company mitigate the danger of an employee falling asleep(?).
        The court very specifically said that “employment was a substantial contributing factor to the injury”, due to his environment of being in the work truck. There have been several articles recently, right on this same web site, where a person slipping, tripping and falling are denied workers compensation benefits due to their activities at the time of the incident. The courts have found that it did not come “out of” their employment and there is no geographic presumption, that just because something happens at work doesn’t mean that’s it’s job related. It seems to me that sleeping in a moving vehicle is not job related and I don’t understand how someone can view that as arising “out of” his employment.

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