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Liability for Accidents Caused by Falling Asleep at the Wheel

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

You may not think that driving tired is as bad as driving drunk, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates over 80,000 accidents a year are caused by drowsy driving, killing 846 people in 2014 alone. So if you think you might need a nap, it's best not to drive or pull over if you can.

And if you've been injured in an accident when someone fell asleep at the wheel, you may be wondering how to hold them accountable. While that may seem easy (after all, they're the one who fell asleep) proving fault in court may be a little more complicated.

Fault for Falling Asleep

It's often not easy to prove that someone was asleep at the time of an accident. And some state statutes require you to also prove that the sleeping driver was awake for 24 continuous hours prior to the accident. Finding evidence of someone's whereabouts for an entire day can be difficult, if not impossible, and might require tracking down some eyewitnesses. And demonstrating they weren't awake at the time of the accident may require the use of circumstantial evidence.

For instance, if the report shows the car veered out of its lane or into a crowded intersection without skid marks, that might suggest the driver didn't brake to avoid the crash. Or, a person's cell phone records, which might contain geographic data that shows the driver was covering long distances recently. Finally, if the driver has a prescription for medication that causes drowsiness, this may have caused them to nod off behind the wheel.

Standard of Sleepiness Proof

The standard of liability in a car accident will depend on whether it is a civil or criminal case. A driver who allegedly fell asleep could be charged with reckless driving or even negligent homicide if someone is killed in the accident. And some state laws require prosecutors to prove "serious blameworthiness," "moral blameworthiness," or "dangerous speeding" in order to obtain a conviction for negligent homicide related to drowsy driving. And they must prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt, which can be a very high standard to meet.

In a civil case, a plaintiff must prove the defendant was negligent by a "preponderance of the evidence," which generally means that it is more likely than not that the defendant was negligent. Although this is a lower bar to meet, car accident cases can be complicated and may require the help of an experienced personal injury attorney.

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