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Truck Driver Asleep at Wheel Causes Accident, Convicted of Homicide

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A tractor and trailer driver faces serious traffic offenses after falling asleep behind the wheel shortly before his truck struck a parked tractor and trailer and killed the driver of the parked truck.  Sadly, this case shows how dangerous drowsy driving can be, and the truck driver now faces a lengthy prison  sentence based upon the criminal acts and will face a civil suit.  A truck accident lawyer, such as Cincinnatti personal injury attorney Charles Rittgers, will file a civil suit on behalf of the man that was killed as a result of the accident.

Pennsylvania Criminal Charges

The driver was charged with serious traffic offenses of Homicide by Vehicle, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732(a), Involuntary Manslaughter, 18 Pa.C.S. § 2504(a), and summary traffic offenses. Both the homicide and manslaughter charges require the district attorney to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver acted "recklessly" or with gross negligence, and that the driver's reckless conduct was the cause of the death of another person. In this case, known as Commonwealth v. Pedota, the truck driver told the police handling the investigation that he had fallen asleep or possibly blacked out, and it was undisputed that the driver's loss of consciousness caused the accident.  The issue in the case was whether or not "blacking out" was a reckless act.

"Reckless" Conduct Requires a Voluntary Act

Pennsylvania law defines "reckless" behavior as consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. Section 302 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code furthers provides that the "risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and intent of the actor's conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation." Pennsylvania law also generally requires that a person commit a voluntary act or do something in order to be subject to criminal liability. The defendant in this case claimed that he had either "blacked out" or unexpectedly fallen asleep behind the wheel, and he argued that his unexpected incapacitation was not a voluntary act and was not reckless.

Sleeping Behind the Wheel can be "Reckless"

In considering the criminal defendant's argument, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reviewed prior cases and noted that there is a difference between an unexpected loss of consciousness and falling asleep. The court noted that drivers have a duty either to remain vigilant and awake or to immediately desist from driving if they feel sleepy. When such a person ignores the signs of oncoming sleep and continues to drive, the person is consciously disregarding a known risk that sleeping while driving could result in an accident. The court also noted only the driver himself is in a position to notice the common signs of fatigue and impending sleep; therefore the prosecution could rely upon the fact that it is common knowledge that sleep is preceded by some internal warning and need not obtain a confession from the driver.

In this case, the facts submitted to the trial judge included an admission from the defendant that he had fallen asleep, but there was also evidence that he had blacked out. The appellate court stated that with the admission to falling asleep, there was sufficient evidence to show that the defendant had acted recklessly in not parking his vehicle when he felt the impending sleep, and, since his reckless conduct was the cause of the accident and resulting death, the court affirmed the convictions for Homicide by Vehicle and Involuntary Manslaughter.

The criminal defendant now must serve his sentence of 2 to 4 years incarceration followed by 3 years of probation. With the Homicide by Vehicle charge being a felony charge, the defendant will also face collateral consequences, such as a license suspension and a lifetime prohibition on the possession of firearms.

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