N.H. Court: Worker Who Fell Asleep While Driving Due Benefits for Crash Injuries

By | March 27, 2015

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled last week that a worker who fell asleep while driving a company truck and hit a utility pole in the course of his employment is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for the severe injuries he sustained in the crash.

The court’s ruling overturns the decision by the New Hampshire Compensation Appeals Board (CAB) to deny the petitioner’s claim.

The petitioner, Brandon Kelly, was an employee of Advanced Sheet Metal in Hudson, New Hampshire. His job involved traveling to job sites in a company truck. The court records show that on March 16, 2012, after working at a job site in Massachusetts, the petitioner departed for the company shop based in Hudson where he planned to unload the truck.

While driving, however, he fell asleep and hit a utility pole. As a result of the accident, his lower leg was amputated.

The petitioner sought workers’ comp benefits. After the respondent, Arbella Insurance Company, denied his claim, a hearing was held before the New Hampshire Department of Labor, which awarded benefits. The respondent then appealed to the CAB, which, in a 2-1 decision, denied the petitioner’s claim.

The CAB said in its ruling that it was undisputed that the petitioner was acting in the course of his employment at the time of the accident, and that the accident occurred because he fell asleep while driving. However, the CAB ruled that the injuries did not arise out of his employment.

‘Mixed Risk’

The CAB said it found that the injury was caused by a “mixed risk,” but that the petitioner failed to prove that “whatever abnormal weariness, if any, [he] might have been suffering that day was caused by his employment.” The petitioner’s motion for reconsideration was denied, and the appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court followed.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court disagreed with the CAB’s ruling by stating that there can be no question that the injurious effects of falling asleep were increased by the environment in which the petitioner found himself at the time he fell asleep — behind the wheel of a moving truck. “We have no difficulty concluding on this record, as a matter of law, that the petitioner’s employment was a substantial contributing factor to the injury,” the high court stated.

The court stated that although not all injuries resulting from mixed risks are compensable, the concurrence of a personal risk and an employment risk does not necessarily defeat compensability if the employment was also a substantial contributing factor to the injury.

The court said its ruling also promotes the remedial purpose of the workers’ compensation law.

This was not a case involving an employee’s disease or internal weakness, the court noted. “Rather, this case involves a tired employee who fell asleep while driving a company truck to the company shop in order to unload the truck, all within the course of his employment,” the court said. “Even if we were to assume that the petitioner was negligent in choosing to drive and in falling asleep while doing so, barring recovery on that basis would be contrary to the remedial purpose of the workers’ compensation law.”

“Accordingly, we reverse the CAB’s ruling that the petitioner’s injury did not arise out of his employment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the court ruled.

The case is Appeal of Brandon Kelly, New Hampshire Compensation Appeals Board No. 2013-867, The Supreme Court of New Hampshire opinion issued on March 20, 2015.

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