Does Falling Asleep at Wheel Automatically Make Sleeping Driver Liable For Central New York Motor Vehicle Accident?

The Syracuse Post Standard today reported that a sleepy tractor trailer driver on the Thruway, near Bethlehem, was dozing at the wheel when he crashed into the back of a second big rig at 1:20 a.m. Only twenty minutes later, when police and rescue workers were on the scene to respond to the tractor trailer crash, a car, whose driver had also dozed off, slammed into the rear of the line of traffic stopped for the first accident, creating in the most literal sense a “double whammy”. Several injuries were reported.

So here’s our legal quiz question for the day: If you prove that the driver that struck your car had fallen asleep at the wheel, do you automatically win your case? The answer? . . . .(drum roll — Jeopardy music — whatever) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . ..

The answer is “NO”, but almost. Here’s how the rule works in New York:
While New York courts don’t consider falling asleep while driving “negligence as a matter of law” (in other words, the driver is not automatically liable for falling asleep), evidence that the driver fell asleep at the wheel and caused an accident creates what we lawyers call a “rebuttable presumption” of negligence.

What does that mean? It means that once you show in court that the driver fell asleep, you have made out a “prima facie” case, which means you have proved your case subject to the driver getting a chance to explain why it wasn’t his fault he fell asleep. (As the old Saturday Night Live skit put it, the driver has “got some splaining to do”). But even though the driver gets a chance to “explain”, you will almost always win your case, and the sleepy driver will almost always lose. Why?

Think about it. How does the asleep-at-the-wheel driver show that it was “not his fault” that he fell asleep? People just don’t suddenly fall asleep. Before sleep sets in, there is a warning sign — called “sleepiness” or “drowsiness” — which almost always comes on before actual sleep. That is when the driver should have pulled over and stopped driving and gotten some rest —- but no, he decided to risk it, and to keep driving, despite his sleepiness.

I am telling you these cases are just about slam dunks. While they are not “automatic” wins, they are damn close.

So to those injured victims of the double whammy on the New York State Thruway — get a good car accident lawyer, or even a not-so-good one, and you will almost certainly end up getting compensated for your pain, suffering, and other loses.

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