August 25, 2017

Employer Not Liable for Sleepy Worker Driving Home

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A recent Indiana Court of Appeals case found that an employer is not liable for a motor vehicle accident caused by a sleepy employee after leaving work.

An employee worked at U.S. Steel in northwest Indiana in maintenance from approximately 7 pm to 6 am on the night before the accident. The employee had worked similar hours, five to six days per week, for about three years. The employee opted to work nights because the labor team he oversaw, which performed maintenance tasks such as delivering supplies and servicing equipment, could accomplish more at night than during the day, when the steel mill was more crowded. Despite averaging four to five hours of sleep per night, the employee never had any issues with his work schedule, and he never asked for a reduction in hours. The employee never felt fatigued at work and had not previously fallen asleep while driving.

Upon driving home on the date of the incident, the employee ran into a 3rd party, Miriam Rodriquez.  Miriam attempted to name U.S. Steel as a defendant, arguing that U.S. Steel owes a 3rd-party motorist such as Miriam, a duty to monitor employee fatigue and perhaps take corrective action before allowing employees to drive home.

To recover on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must establish three elements:

Rodriguez v. U.S. Steel Corp, decided December 31, 2014, by the Indiana Court of Appeals, focused on the duty element. Under well-established Indiana Supreme Court precedent, Indiana Courts will utilize a three-part balancing test to determine whether a duty exists:

Indiana Courts have utilized the three factors in various ways over the years, but the Indiana Supreme Court has stated, “No better general statement can be made that the Courts will find a duty where, in general, reasonable persons would recognize it and agree that it exists.” Put another way, Indiana Courts have struggled with providing bright-line guidance on a go-forward basis to determine when a duty exists.

In Rodriguez v U.S. Steel the Court initially analogized the case to a dram shop case where a provider of alcohol can be liable to a 3rd-party motorist resulting from the actions of an intoxicated guest/employee.  The Court stated, however, that long working hours do not necessarily affect a person in the same way that alcohol does, and there are many factors other than long-working hours that may contribute to fatigue (off-duty activities, quantity and quality of sleep, medical conditions and medication) over which employers have no control. 

The Court also found that imposing a duty on an employer to monitor employees for fatigue is not easily workable, if workable at all. The Court stated that it is not clear how an employer could monitor employee fatigue, much less how an employer could determine whether such fatigue was job related, or for that matter, where the fatigue is sufficient to intervene and attempt to prevent the employee from leaving the employer’s premises, even if the employer had the authority to do so. Accordingly, the Court found that U.S. Steel owed no duty to Miriam in this case, and U.S. Steel was dismissed from the lawsuit.

The Court of Appeals left the door open to impose a duty in a similar situation in the future. Factors weighing in favor of imposing a duty would include strict control of the hours by the employer, knowledge by the employer of an employee previously falling asleep on the way home from work, and technological advances to monitor an employee’s fatigue.

Stay tuned.