There has been much publicity surrounding the dangers of texting while driving and driving while intoxicated. However, more and more states are now looking at criminalizing driving while drowsy. If a driver knowingly gets behind the wheel while drowsy and crashes causing in serious injuries or death, prosecutors in some states will now consider charging the driver with manslaughter. Most recently, a New York bus driver was recently found not guilty of manslaughter and negligent homicide for allegedly crashing his bus after dozing off behind the wheel. Fifteen passengers died in the bus accident.
In 2011, bus driver Opadell Williams was driving a commercial bus containing 32 passengers from a Casino in Connecticut to New York. According to prosecutors, Williams fell asleep while driving because of a lack of sleep causing the bus to hit a guard and flip over killing 15 of the 32 passengers. Prosecutors charged Williams with manslaughter and negligent homicide, claiming he effectively chose to endanger the lives of his passengers when got behind the wheel of the bus knowing he was drowsy from a lack of sleep.
During the criminal trial, prosecutors presented evidence suggesting Williams was heavily sleep deprived. They argued he had slept an average of 3 hours a day for the three days before the crash which substantially compromised his reflexes (much like being intoxicated) or caused him to fall asleep. Ultimately, the jury found Williams not guilty of manslaughter and negligent homicide.
Because the jury never publically explained the reasoning behind their verdict, it is unclear why the jury found Williams not guilty. However, what is clear is that there will be civil personal injury lawsuits filed against Williams and the company he worked for at the time of the collision. Unlike in a criminal case, jurors in a civil case will not be asked to determine whether Williams is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, they will likely be asked to determine whether it is likely Williams acted negligently and, if so, whether his negligence likely caused the collision. In addition, the jurors may be asked to determine whether Williams acted with reckless indifference for the lives of his passengers. Reckless indifference is a finding that could permit the jury to award punitive damages against Williams and the bus company, in addition to compensatory damages under simple negligence law.
In the criminal trial, the defense argued Williams was not too drowsy to drive. They claimed Williams worked long hours just like many other professionals and that he was sufficiently rested to drive. They further claimed Williams lost control of the bus because he was cut off by a tractor-trailer--not because he was tired or fell asleep. Thus, the defenses argument will likely be two-fold. First, they will claim Williams was sufficiently rested and therefore not negligent when he crashed the bus. Second, even assuming he was too tired/negligent to drive, they will claim he should still be found not guilty because another vehicle is to blame for the crash. At times, blaming another vehicle can work even when there is little evidence to support such a conclusion on than the defendant driver's own, self-serving testimony. Whether such an argument would work in this case remains to be seen.
New York Times, Bus Driver Found Not Guilty Of Manslaughter In I-90 Crash, December 7, 2012.