Hit by a Driver Who Fell Asleep? How to Prove Liability and Compensation

See how to establish liability against a driver who fell asleep at the wheel and estimate the amount of compensation you can expect after a crash.

Falling asleep while driving is all too common. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) studies estimated that more than 72,000 accidents were caused by drowsy drivers in one year, causing 41,000 injuries and 800 fatalities.¹

Fatigued drivers are as dangerous as drunk drivers. Hitting the road after more than 20 hours without sleep is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% – the legal limit for intoxication.²

Thousands of accidents happen every day because someone fell asleep while driving. If you’re one of the many injured accident victims, you deserve the maximum compensation for your losses.

Compensation for Drowsy Driving Accidents

In most car accident cases, you’ll begin by filing an insurance claim. If you live in a no-fault insurance state, you’ll file an injury claim with your own insurance company.

No-fault policies have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage to pay medical expenses regardless of who caused the crash. PIP will not compensate you for pain and suffering.

When no-fault laws don’t limit you, or when your injury expenses are more than your PIP coverage, you’ll file an injury claim against the at-fault driver’s insurance company. If your injuries were caused by a commercial driver who fell asleep at the wheel, your attorney may pursue a claim or file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver’s employer.

Minor Injuries

If you’ve fully recovered from minor car accident injuries, you might decide to handle the insurance claim on your own. With mild to moderate injuries, your medical expenses will form the basis for estimating the payout you can expect from the insurance company.

A simple way to calculate the value of your accident claim starts with adding up all your economic damages, such as medical expenses, lost wages, and other out-of-pocket expenses. Then add one or two times that total to account for your non-economic damages, known as pain and suffering.

Serious Injuries

Severe injury claims and wrongful death cases should be handled by an attorney. An experienced personal injury attorney will pursue full compensation for past and future damages, including extreme pain and suffering.

Your attorney may hire experts to justify seeking compensation for:

  • Future medical expenses
  • Loss of future income
  • Loss of consortium
  • Emotional distress caused by amputations, scarring, and permanent disability

An attorney will discover all sources of compensation needed to pay for your injuries, and go to court to fight for your fair share when there isn’t enough insurance money to cover multiple injury claimants.

When the accident was caused by a commercial bus or truck driver, a lawsuit may be needed to get the amount of compensation you deserve.

Case Example: Ohio Jury Awards $27 Million to Victim of Sleepy Bus Driver

Mark Soberay was riding in the front seat of a Greyhound bus when the bus driver fell asleep at the wheel, slamming into the rear of a tractor-trailer rig on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Soberay lost his leg in the crash, and endured more than 30 surgeries for internal injuries and crushed bones in his foot, pelvis, and arm. His attorneys sued Greyhound, arguing that the bus company failed to enforce the rule requiring drivers to stop every 150 miles.

The jury found in favor of Soberay, awarded him $23 million in compensatory damages and just over $4 million in punitive damages.

Proving Fault for a Sleep-Related Crash

All drivers have a legal duty to be careful and avoid causing harm to others. Negligence happens when a driver fails to act responsibly or does something no reasonable driver would do, like driving for two days without sleep.

It may seem perfectly clear to you that the other driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into your car, but the insurance company won’t automatically pay your claim. You have to prove it.

You’ll have to prove several factors, including:

  1. The other driver had a duty of care to drive safely.
  2. The driver violated that duty by continuing to drive while drowsy.
  3. The drowsy driver collided with your vehicle due to their negligence.
  4. The collision was the exclusive cause of your injuries.

Gathering Evidence at the Scene

Auto accidents can be horrific. You may not be in any condition to think about evidence after the collision. If you or a friend are able, call for help and start collecting evidence that can support your accident claim.

Unless it’s necessary for safety reasons, don’t allow anyone to move the cars. In many cases, the accident’s location together with the point of impact can tell a story.

Call 911: Call 911 immediately after the crash to notify police and ask for help. Tell the dispatcher if you are hurt, and if you know of anyone else with injuries. Give your location, including nearby intersections or landmarks. The dispatcher needs to know if there are dangers at the scene like leaking fuel or overturned cars.

Take photographs: Photographs and videos are solid evidence. Take as many as you can, as quickly as you can. Accident scenes clear quickly and important evidence may be lost.

Take pictures of the vehicles, the point of impact, and traffic signals. Take pictures of broken side mirrors and lights. Look for anything else that tends to show the driver’s car had no logical reason for drifting into your lane.

If you can photograph the inside of the other driver’s car, look for signs the driver may have fallen asleep. Signs might include beer cans, energy drink containers, or medication bottles.

Take pictures of the road on both sides of the crash. An absence of skid marks is evidence that the driver didn’t try to correct the trajectory of a drifting car.

Get witness statements: Witnesses, especially independent ones, can help your claim. A statement from an independent witness saying they saw the driver nodding off is powerful evidence and very difficult for the driver to deny.

Order the police report: If you’re unable to gather evidence at the scene, you’ll still have the police report. A police accident report is often the foundation of a personal injury claim. If the driver admits to falling asleep, the officer will note that in the police report.

The officer’s report will include diagrams of the scene, driver and witness statements, citations issued, and the officer’s opinion of fault. The report should be available within a week or two after the accident.

Gathering Evidence After the Crash

Continue to collect evidence to support your claim until it is settled and paid.

Medical records: Collect copies of all your medical bills and records. Your medical records will help link your injuries to the accident, and medical costs are part of calculating compensation. Save receipts for any out-of-pocket expenses like child care or lawn services.

Lost wages: Ask your employer for a statement detailing lost wages since the accident, lost opportunities for overtime, and any sick or vacation leave you used.

Keep a diary: After the crash, make detailed notes of everything you remember before, during, and after the accident. Describe your fear and pain when the accident happened. Keep notes throughout your recovery with details of your pain, mobility issues, frustrations, sleep problems, and when you needed help with daily activities.

Your diary can support your demand for pain and suffering. Your notes may be used as evidence if your claim goes to court, so don’t write down anything you wouldn’t want a judge to read.

Commercial driving records:  Truckers, like tractor-trailer drivers, must have a commercial drivers’ license (CDL)  and maintain careful records of their working schedule and hours of sleep. Your attorney can issue a subpoena to obtain the driver’s sleep logs, driving history, and other important evidence.

Laws That Apply to Fatigued Driving

While many states encourage public awareness of the dangers of fatigued driving, most states’ legislatures have failed to pass drowsy driving laws that apply to regular non-commercial drivers – with one notable exception.

Sleepy Driving is Reckless Driving in New Jersey:

a. Criminal homicide constitutes vehicular homicide when it is caused by driving a vehicle or vessel recklessly.

Proof that the defendant fell asleep while driving or was driving after having been without sleep for a period in excess of 24 consecutive hours may give rise to an inference that the defendant was driving recklessly. 

The absence of sleep-specific state laws doesn’t mean that accidents caused by sleepy drivers have no consequences. A driver who causes a crash after falling asleep at the wheel is still negligent and may be found guilty of reckless driving under most state standards.

Automobile accidents that result in fatalities may give rise to vehicular homicide and other criminal charges.

Case Example: Man Charged with Vehicular Homicide After Falling Asleep at the Wheel

Pennsylvania driver Aaron D. Miller had worked the night shift and stayed up to go to an appointment when he allegedly struck and killed a construction worker after falling asleep at the wheel.

The victim, Joshua Bishop, had been setting out work signs and cones when he was hit. Police believe Miller’s car had traveled three blocks while slowly drifting over before striking Bishop.

Miller was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving, and careless driving.

Commercial carriers, meaning trucks and busses operated by professional drivers for the purpose of transporting passengers and goods, are subject to Federal Hours of Service Regulations. The hours of service rules prohibit drivers from driving without sleep, and limit the number of hours a driver can be on the road without a documented break.

Risks for Falling Asleep While Driving

Safety surveys reveal that an alarming number of drivers admit to dozing off behind the wheel. Even when a driver hasn’t fallen completely asleep, sleep deprivation affects the driver’s judgment, attention, and reaction time.

Drivers at high risk of falling asleep while driving:

  • Suffer from sleep apnea or other sleep disorders
  • Operate commercial vehicles
  • Are shift workers, or work extra long hours
  • Drive under the influence of alcohol or medications

Motor vehicle accidents caused by someone who fell asleep at the wheel can have devastating consequences for victims and their families.

Without rumble strips to act as warning signs, drowsiness can cause drivers to drift out of their travel lane into oncoming traffic. The resulting head-on collisions are the deadliest kind of car accidents, resulting in catastrophic and fatal injuries.

Most personal injury lawyers offer a free consultation to accident victims. Find out how a lawyer can help get the compensation you and your family deserve.

Asleep While Driving Questions

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>