From the desk of Thomas McCurdy: Generally, if a driver loses consciousness and causes an auto accident, they are not held liable. The driver can be held liable, however, if they were aware that there was a possibility they could suddenly lose consciousness. This case addresses the question, does a driver’s prior knowledge of their multiple health conditions make them aware they could lose consciousness?
Claims Pointer: The key issue in the decision of this case, was determining whether the driver was aware he could lose consciousness. It was known that the driver was aware he had numerous heath conditions, and a medical expert testified that losing consciousness was a reasonable and foreseeable result of these conditions. The court ultimately determined the driver was not responsible.
Sartin v. Estate of McPike, 2020 Wash. App. LEXIS 2853 (November 3, 2020)
This case involved a negligence action for a collision caused by an unconscious driver, Alonzo McPike (“McPike”). McPike was a bus operator for Pierce Transit. In May 2015, during McPike’s route, the passengers noticed him slumped over in his seat while the bus was still in motion. The bus then collided with a vehicle containing the plaintiff, Christopher Sartin (“Sartin”). Later, it was determined that McPike had suffered a heart attack while operating the bus. McPike had numerous health issues including diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity. All these medical conditions increased his risk of developing a heart condition in the future. However, McPike did not have a history of symptoms or precursory signs of heart disease or heart conditions.
Throughout the year before the accident, McPike experienced a variety of medical issues and evaluations. He had to take two leaves of absence to manage his diabetes and when he returned to work, Pierce Transit did not require that he undergo any fitness for duty evaluations. Months later, McPike underwent his annual CDL medical examination where the examining physician found McPike’s blood pressure was too high for a one-year qualification. However, the examining physician issued a three-month short card. Three months later McPike underwent another CDL examination. During this examination, his physician noted his previous high blood pressure but that McPike had gotten it under control in the past three months. The examining physician took McPike’s blood pressure that day, which was high, and noted an irregular cardiac rhythm. However, the physician determined that these factors would probably not interfere with McPike’s ability to operate a commercial vehicle safely, so he issued McPike a one-year CDL medical certification.
Then, on May 26, 2015, McPike suffered a heart attack while operating the Pierce Transit bus that collided with the plaintiff. Sartin then brought a negligence action against the estate of McPike, Pierce Transit, and the CDL certifying physician. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that McPike’s loss of consciousness was not foreseeable as a matter of law, which the trial court granted. Sartin appealed.
In Washington, the general rule is that a driver who suddenly loses consciousness and is unable to control their vehicle is not negligent, unless the loss of consciousness or sudden incapacitation was reasonably foreseeable to the driver, then he may be considered negligent. Whether loss of consciousness is reasonably foreseeable depends on if the driver had information that would indicate that he may suffer incapacitation while engaging in a potentially dangerous activity, like driving. Evidence that may show that the driver had information on the possibility of losing consciousness includes: (1) number and frequency of past incapacitation episodes; (2) circumstances of past episodes that bear on likelihood of reoccurrence; (3) medical treatment the driver is receiving to control the medical problem; and (4) advice from the driver’s doctor.
Two previous Washington cases have addressed the negligence of a driver for a sudden loss of consciousness. However, both cases involved the driver’s reaction to medication. In one case, the driver was found not negligent because his loss of consciousness was a side effect of his prescribed medication, but he was not warned of the potential side effects. In the other case, the driver was found to be negligent after receiving an anti-nausea shot because he had been warned that the medication may affect his driving. Unlike the two previous cases, this case involved known medical conditions that the driver had previously been diagnosed with.
Sartin argued that in order to determine the foreseeability of the accident, the proper inquiry should be if the “accident fell within a general field of danger that was foreseeable.” The Washington Court of Appeals clearly rejected this standard for analysis. Rather the court stated the correct inquiry is if the sudden loss of consciousness is reasonably foreseeable to the driver. Sartin offered expert opinion from a physician who reviewed McPike’s medical records and determined that based on the records, McPike’s loss of consciousness was foreseeable. However, whether the loss of consciousness was foreseeable to a physician, after the fact, is not the correct inquiry, rather the sudden incapacitation had to be reasonably foreseeable to McPike. Based on the evidence and testimony provided, McPike was not aware that sudden loss of consciousness was a possibility for him.
As for the plaintiff’s claim against Pierce Transit, Sartin claimed that Pierce Transit was independently negligent because the company had a duty to ensure their drivers are physically able to operate a bus safely. Thus, Pierce Transit should have made McPike undergo a physical fitness test following his return to work after his leaves of absence. Pierce Transit argued in opposition, that even if McPike had undergone an evaluation, there was no evidence the company would have found him unable to operate a vehicle safely. Thus, Sartin failed to establish proximate cause. Similarly, the court of appeals found that the claim against the CDL examining physician was properly dismissed because Sartin did not provide evidence of causation for that claim.
Ultimately, the Washington Court of Appeals found that all the defendants’ motions for summary judgment were properly granted.