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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Commercial Driver Fatigue Questioned as a Pre-exisiting Condition?

Falling asleep at the wheel is a common cause of accidents for commercial drivers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration  (FMCSA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation is exploring  the issue that such conditions as excessive  daytime sleepiness should be evaluated by medical examination in an effort to predict future probabilities of having a bad day at the wheel and potential crashes at the wheel because of sleepiness. 

If a sleep disorder can be identified and documented, that condition maybe determined to be a pre-exisiting medical condition. Apart from the third party liability that could be imposed upon an employer for identification and non-identification of the medical condition, the issue of an allocation for a pre-exisitng medical conditions (prior-functional credit) may exist in a workers' compensation claim as well as an event that can be attributed to a risk in the course of employment.

The term "prior functional credit" refers to the credit given to the employer, or to the employer's insurance carrier, for the loss of function of any part of the body which an employee had sustained before a subsequent injury or occupational disease for which the employer in question is responsible.  Over the years there have been dramatic changes enacted by the Legislature accompanied by varying interpretations by the courts with regard to the law addressing credits to be afforded to the employer for both non-work and work connected injuries.

The employer no longer takes an employee as they find them. Belth v. Anthony Ferrante & Son, Inc., 47 N.J. 38, 219 A.2d 168 (1966). An individual suffered from asbestosis and bronchitis, and medical testimony was presented by the petitioner's expert apportioning a percentage of the functional loss to cigarette smoking.  The employer was awarded a credit for the previous loss of function which could be attributed to the employee's cigarette smoking, since the legislatively enacted amendments permitted the employer to receive credit for an employee's prior loss of function involving the same body part affected by the compensable occupational disease regardless of whether compensation was received for the earlier injury.  In effect, the employer no longer takes employees as it finds them.  The court stated that the credit to employers for previous loss of function, whether work-related or not, was an incentive to encourage employers to hire workers with pre-existing disabilities.  Field v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 209 N.J.Super. 528, 507 A.2d 1209 (App.Div.1986), certif. denied 105 N.J. 531, 523 A.2d 172 (1986); Dafler v. Raymark Industries, Inc., 259 N.J.Super. 17, 611 A.2d 136 (App.Div.1992).

Additional questions may arise as to whether the risk is actually associated with the employment. The Court may also evaluate the risk associated with the employment task in evaluating compensability.  Where the risk was not enhanced by the business interests of the employer, and there was no exercise of control by the employer over the employee, the event is usually deemed to be non-compensable. If the risk in indeed removed from the course of employment then the employer may be denied the exclusivity bar and liability on the employer could be imposed in a civil action. 

The FMCSA commented, "....measuring an individual’s sleepiness today is not going to predict how sleepy the person will be 6 weeks from now. Several factors influence sleepiness, including prior sleep time, medications, and time of day, so it is a very difficult thing to assess."

Click here to read more about "pre-exisiitng conditions" and workers' compensation.