July 1, 2013, is the deadline for the implementation of the new hours-of-service regulations for drivers. As explained by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the main reason for the regulations is, “to keep fatigued drivers off the public roadways.” It is anticipated that these new regulations will impact the allegations of driver fatigue in trucking litigation, but will it render the claims obsolete? The answer is simple: doubtful. With the new regulations comes a requirement of heightened vigilance on the carrier and it cannot be forgotten that driver fatigue cannot be pinpointed to one cause. There are multiple causes of which some may be addressed by the regulatory response, others will not – driver’s personal choices; health issues; unexpected events; logistical issues – to name a few.

It is highly unlikely that regulatory change alone will cause allegations of driver fatigue in trucking litigation to become extinct. Managing fatigue is not a simple matter. The causes of driver fatigue are multifaceted and there is individual variability when it comes to sleep. Solutions therefore need to be comprehensive.

News articles in past months have reported large verdicts against fleets involved in serious accidents. One of the main causes of these accidents: fatigue. The reasons for these large verdicts include younger, less conservative juries, plaintiffs having more access to federal regulatory databases and motor carrier files, punitive damages and closer involvement of insurers choosing to go to trial rather than settle out of court.

By now it is common knowledge that driver fatigue is a major concern of fleet safety managers. Certainly, there are instances in which tired driving leads to an accident. However, all is not lost. These cases can be defensible depending upon the reason for, or cause of, the driver fatigue. Simply because driver fatigue leads to an accident does not automatically mean punitive damages are warranted. Whether such conduct rises to a level of culpability in which punitive or exemplary damages should be levied against the driver and carrier is another matter. Numerous courts have considered the issue and the results may be surprising.

Today, most states utilize one of two standards for awarding punitive damages. The more common standard today is a, “conscious disregard for the rights and safety of other persons that has a great probability of causing substantial harm.” Yet, in other states, the bar is much higher. For instance, under Arizona law, a plaintiff must prove that the tortfeasor’s, “evil hand was guided by an evil mind.” In New York, punitive damages are permitted when the defendant’s wrongdoing, “is not simply intentional but evince[s] a high degree of moral turpitude and demonstrate[s] such wanton dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference to civil obligations.”

Despite these divergent standards, most if not all courts would agree with the Ohio Supreme Court that, “something more than mere negligence is always required.” Leichtamer v. Am. Motors Corp. Yet, conduct associated with something less than a specific intent to drive a semi into another vehicle can fall within the punitive damages standard. A commercial driver who makes a conscious decision to forego sleep in order to spend more time on the road, and subsequently causes an accident due to fatigue, tests where that line should be drawn.

In reviewing the numerous cases that have tackled the issue of whether a punitive damages award is appropriate when an accident is caused by driver fatigue, it can be a challenge to synthesize their holdings to extract a distinct bright line where, once crossed, summary judgment will not be achieved and punitive damages are a real possibility. Because the punitive damage standard varies from state to state, and because the outcomes hinge largely on the specific facts of each case, it is no surprise that there are inconsistencies and contradictions among the courts that have examined this issue. Yet there do appear to be some common threads.

Simply put, if the driver was aware of his or her fatigue prior to the accident and made a conscious decision to continue driving, the defense will not likely achieve summary judgment on the punitive damages claim. Such knowledge, and subsequent conduct, appears to be the difference between negligent and punitive conduct in the driver fatigue context.

Several courts have stated that, “just falling asleep at the wheel does not support an award of punitive damages.” See e.g. Batts v. Crete Carrier Corp. Yet, in many of those same cases, the court permitted the jury to consider punitive damages because the driver had some awareness of his or her fatigue and continued to drive. For instance, the Supreme Court of Iowa found that the commercial driver, “knew of his [fatigued] condition and persisted in driving despite the danger.” Briner v. Hyslop. A Pennsylvania court concluded the driver, “knew she was physically exhausted,” since she had stopped her vehicle twice prior to the accident and attempted to wake herself up. Claypoole v. Miller.

Conversely, where the court finds, “no evidence [that the driver] consciously ignored the risk of fatigue,” summary judgment in favor of the driver and motor carrier is appropriate. (Batts) (emphasis added). A federal court in Pennsylvania, discussing a punitives claim, found no evidence that the driver, “consciously appreciated the risk of prolonged driving” beyond the 10-hour rule. Burke v. Maassen (emphasis added).

Given the twin goals of punitive damages – punishment and deterrence – it makes sense that courts hone in on the driver’s awareness of fatigue and whether a decision was made to continue driving. It is difficult to deter accidental conduct. For the same reason, it would not make sense to punish such behavior. The case law reflects these underlying principles.

As driver fatigue continues to play a role in trucking accidents, it is important to assess the risks associated with such conduct. The new hours-of-service regulations simply put another weapon in plaintiffs’ arsenal. The violation of these regulations could be the “knowledge” or “conscious ignorance” of the risk of fatigue sufficient to risk a punitive claim. Evidence that the driver was aware of his or her own fatigue and continued driving typically forecloses summary judgment. Yet there is good news. In many jurisdictions, fatigued driving alone is not enough to support a punitive damages claim. Although statistics show that fatigue continues to accompany a number of semi accidents, plaintiffs must still prove that fatigue was the legal cause of the accident. But even then, what may be considered negligent conduct does not necessarily reach the more egregious level of punitive conduct.