If you or a loved one has been injured or a loved one killed in a collision caused by a semi-truck driver and the trucking company claims the wreck was caused by the driver having a heart attack or other sudden medical emergency, then you need an attorney who knows this specific area of the law.
It is true that in Texas, there is a legal defense called “unforeseeable incapacity” which is a defense to negligence, negligence per se, and even wrongful death claims. See e.g. Williams v. Parker, 472 S.W.3d 467, 470 (Tex. App.—Waco 2015, no pet.); Piatt v. Welch, 974 S.W.2d 786, 788 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1998, no pet.). This type of defense is what’s known as an inferential-rebuttal defense which once proven may serve as a bar to liability “based on the principle that one is not negligent if an unforeseeable occurrence causes an injury.” Caddell v. Oakley Trucking, Inc., 4:14-CV-909-A, 2015 WL 7454666, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 23, 2015); see Gomez, 14-15-00010-CV, 2016 WL 836781, at *1–2.
But just because a trucking company asserts the defense and has some evidence that a heart attack or other medical event occurred—that doesn’t mean they automatically win. To win, the trucking company has the burden to prove (1) the driver was incapacitated before the collision, (2) the incapacity caused the collision, (3) the incapacity was very sudden/without warning, and (4) the incapacity was not foreseeable. See Piatt v. Welch, 974 S.W.2d 786, 788 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1998, no pet.) (citing Harvey v. Culpepper, 801 S.W.2d 596, 598 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1990, no writ)); see e.g. Hoppe v. Hughes, 577 S.W.2d 773, 777–78 (Tex. Civ. App.—Amarillo 1979, writ ref’d n.r.e.).
Put more simply, to prevail on this theory a trucking company must:
- prove that their Driver had a heart attack or other medical condition;
- prove that the alleged heart attack occurred before the collision;
- prove that the alleged heart attack caused the driver to be incapacitated and unable to steer the truck or apply its brakes;
- prove that the alleged heart attack was unforeseeable;
- prove that the alleged heart attack heat occurred very suddenly/without warning.
Evidence from the trucking company’s expert doctor that their driver had a heart attack that caused the driver to become incapacitated helps their case but it doesn’t prove all these elements. And your attorney should consider finding your own expert who may be able to testify that their doctor is just speculating. See e.g. Hoppfe v. Hughes, 577 S.W.2d 773, 777–78 (Tex. Civ. App.—Amarillo 1979, writ ref’d n.r.e.) (reversing and remanding a jury decision, the Amarillo Court held that where the Defendant’s only evidence is the speculation of an expert doctor that the driver suffered a heart attack, the statutory violation of the driver remained unrebutted by some evidence of the claimed incapacity).
Even if the trucking company can prove that their driver had a heart attack which caused the collision, they still must show that the heart attack was unforeseeable and occurred suddenly. For instance, if the driver’s doctor warned him of the possibility of a sudden heart attack and told the driver what warning signs to watch out for, that’s very much hurt’s the trucking company’s chances of prevailing on this defense.
Similarly, sudden heart attacks that occur without any symptoms are really rare. More likely than not the driver actually had symptoms of the heart attack and chose to keep driving anyway. But under Texas law, if the truck driver started feeling symptoms and chose not to pull off to the side of the road, that’s grounds for finding him or her negligent and he or she should be held responsible for that negligent decision. See e.g. Harvey v. Culpepper, 801 S.W.2d 596, 598–99 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1990, no writ) (holding that evidence that driver was “feeling ill prior to the collision was legally and factually sufficient to support the jury’s finding of negligence”); see also Durham v. Wardlow, 401 S.W.2d 372, 373 (Tex. Civ. App.—Amarillo 1966, no writ) (driver’s defense of unforeseeable incapacitation was defeated by evidence indicating that he felt sick earlier in the day).
Some law firms don’t want to mess with this type of case because these cases can be somewhat complicated. However, knowing the law on this topic will help you fight back against a trucking company who doesn’t want to take responsibility for their bad actions. It’s the trucking company’s job to make sure their truck drivers are safe, and that involves making sure they are healthy enough to drive and that their drivers know the signs of heart attack and know that if they become ill they need to immediately get off the road and stop putting all the other drivers’ lives at risk.
When you are suing a trucking company and this defense is raised, you should consider requesting discovery from the trucking company on the issue of whether their driver lied on their ODOT health examinations. For instance, sometimes truck drivers first go to their primary doctor and discovery that they aren’t going to pass the health exam due to their past medical history. Then sometimes the drivers go to another doctor who doesn’t know their medical history and will sign off on their being healthy enough to driver. When truck drivers or even worse trucking companies take part in such fraudulent medical exams, they should be held accountable.
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