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Falling Asleep at the Wheel is Negligent, but is it "Reckless"?

Have you ever seen a car swerving back and forth on the highway, straying outside of the lanes? You probably thought this was a drunk driver. But perhaps it was a drowsy driver instead. Our Connecticut courts have had opportunity to address this situation. In the case of Potz v. Williams, 113 Conn 278 (1931), an older case that established a precedent for our current law today, the Court found that drowsy driving could support a claim for negligence. But what makes the decision interesting is the discussion about the driver's failure to stop driving when he knew that he was tired, but decided to continue on regardless. In such cases, there may be a claim for recklessness, which exposes a defendant to greater damages than a simple negligence case.

When Does Drowsy Driving Become "Reckless Conduct"? To quote the court: "It is but the plainest common sense to recognize that there are circumstances under which the operation of an automobile upon the highway by one who is or should be aware of the likelihood that sleep will overtake him could reasonably be held to constitute reckless misconduct." Potz at 281. Of course, the driver is negligent, but doesn't it make sense to hold someone accountable for reckless conduct - and greater damages - when the driver knows they are drowsy or beginning to fall asleep at the wheel, yet continues driving regardless? This is a calculated risk with the lives of others hanging in the balance. As another Connecticut court held, ". . . ordinarily sleep does not come upon one without warning of its approach." Smith v. Cszecel, 12 Conn. App. 558 (1987). Kakluskas v. Somers Motor Lines, Inc., 134 Conn. 35, 39-40, 54 A.2d 592 (1947) (upholding conclusion in bench trial, that a driver, who fell asleep at the wheel of his truck, was guilty of reckless and wanton misconduct because the court could reasonably have inferred from the facts that the defendant appreciated his drowsy condition prior to the onset of sleep).

"Reckless Conduct" Defined: In a case of a drowsy truck driver travelling down Interstate 95 in Stamford, Connecticut, the court had an opportunity to define reckless conduct. Reckless conduct is ". . . that which "tends to take on the aspect of highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent . . . It is at least clear . . . that such aggravated negligence must be more than any mere mistake resulting from inexperience, excitement, or confusion, and more than mere thoughtlessness or inadvertence, or simply inattention." Dubay v. Irish, 207 Conn. 533, quoting W. Prosser & W. Keeton, Torts (5th Ed.) 34, p. 214. In the case of the Stamford, Connecticut crash caused by a drowsy truck driver, DiNapoli v. MacDaniel, 2018 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1824, Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk At Stamford, the drowsy truck driver smashed into the back of one car and then rammed into another vehicle, all while asleep at the wheel. The driver admitted that he was tired and that he fell asleep while driving. The court allowed the reckless count to proceed to a jury for a decision. Reckless conduct ". . . 'requires a conscious choice of a course of action either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man,' and . . . the actor 'must recognize that his conduct involves a risk substantially greater . . . than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.' In short, if a jury finds that a defendant's conduct was reckless, the door opens to claim punitive damages as against the defendant. Falling asleep while driving may constitute recklessness.

If you have a question about the concept of reckless conduct, whether it be sleeping behind the wheel or some other knowingly outrageous conduct that resulted in injuries to another person, we would be happy to speak with you. Call us at 203-838-7111.

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