Firm News

No liability for driver’s sudden loss of consciousness

Where a driver had no reason to foresee that he would suffer sudden loss of consciousness caused by cardiac arrest, he was not liable for harm caused in the motor vehicle accident that followed, the Court of Appeals held in Sartin v. Estate of McPike, 15 Wn. App. 2d 163, 475 P.3d 522, review denied, No. 99273-8, 2021 WL 824577 (Wash. Mar. 3, 2021). In that case, a bus driver lost consciousness, and the bus hit another vehicle. The occupant of that vehicle sued the bus driver and his employer for negligence. He alleged that the driver should have known that his health put him more at risk for cardiac arrest, and that the employer should have required fitness-for-duty examinations. The occupant also sued the doctor who had issued a certificate allowing the driver to renew his commercial driver’s license for a year. These two lawsuits were consolidated.

The driver had worked as a bus operator for approximately 18 years. As required for licensing, he obtained annual medical examinations to ensure that he was physically qualified to operate a commercial vehicle. He had never before experienced cardiac arrest or a sudden loss of consciousness while driving a bus.

At the time of the accident, he did have multiple risk factors for heart disease, including late middle age, former tobacco user, history of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, and morbid obesity. He was under the care of doctors for these known conditions, and no doctor found cause to warn him not to drive because of his conditions. A cardiac workup about two and a half years before the accident showed benign findings. About a year before the accident, he took leaves of absence to manage his diabetes. At his prior annual medical exam for his commercial driver’s license, his high blood pressure and sleep issues prompted the examining physician to refer him to general physician and a sleep specialist, and to issue only a provisional three-month medical certification.

In the following three months, the driver was diagnosed and began treatment for sleep apnea, and his blood pressure was also monitored and brought to acceptable levels. The diabetes was in reasonable control. Therefore, about four months before the accident, he received a one-year medical certification for his commercial driver’s license. After that, he followed up with his doctors to monitor diabetes and hypertension. He received good reports, and his physician saw no need for another cardiac referral.

The driver moved for summary judgment, asserting that his loss of consciousness was not reasonably foreseeable. The general rule is that a vehicle driver who suddenly loses consciousness is not negligent unless the loss of consciousness was reasonably foreseeable to the driver. For instance, a driver who loses conscious because of the effects of a prescription medication could be liable if he was warned of the medication’s harmful qualities, but he could avoid liability if he had no knowledge of those qualities. To determine whether the loss of consciousness is foreseeable, the court considers the number and frequency of past episodes of incapacitation; whether circumstances make reoccurrence likely; whether treatment can be expected to control the underlying medical problem; and the advice from the physicians.

The driver’s treating doctors, and an expert cardiologist and internal medicine specialist, all opined that, based on the driver’s medical history and condition at the time of the accident, his sudden cardiac arrest was not reasonably foreseeable.

The plaintiff opposed the motion on the theory that he need only prove it was foreseeable that the various medical problems would affect the driver in some way. He produced a contrary expert opinion by an occupational and environmental medicine specialist, who was an expert in the medical certification of commercial drivers. The expert opined it was foreseeable that the driver would suffer incapacitation of some kind because of his multiple medical conditions.

Although foreseeability of loss of consciousness generally is a question of fact for the jury, the trial court granted summary judgment. The Court of Appeals agreed the driver’s loss of consciousness was not foreseeable, as a matter of law, in this case. The evidence showed that he never had experienced a loss of consciousness, he had no history of any heart problems that would cause sudden cardiac arrest, his other medical conditions were under control, and none of his doctors believed that it was unsafe for him to drive a bus.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that to survive summary judgment he need only show that some incapacitation was reasonably foreseeable from the driver’s health condition. Such a position is inconsistent with well-settled law regarding sudden loss of consciousness, which holds no negligence attaches unless the loss of consciousness is foreseeable to the defendant. Whether some incapacitation is foreseeable is not the issue, and the plaintiff presented no evidence that loss of consciousness was foreseeable.

The employer also successfully moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff had produced no evidence that the driver would not have passed a fitness-for-duty evaluation after either his cardiac workup or his leaves of absence. The plaintiff’s medical expert acknowledged that he had insufficient evidence to opine that requiring a fitness-for-duty exam at either time would have revealed that the driver could not safely operate a bus. The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment, holding that the lack of evidence that a fitness-for-duty exam would have revealed a disqualifying condition merited dismissal. Where the plaintiff had no evidence that the exam would have sidelined the driver, thus preventing the accident, he could not support the essential proximate cause element of his claim.

We are ready to zealously handle your litigation needs