Law & Medicine

Auto accidents in sleepy medical trainees



Question: Driving home after a demanding 24 hours on call, the sleepy and fatigued first-year medical resident momentarily dozed off at the wheel, ran a stop sign, and struck an oncoming car, injuring its driver. In a lawsuit by the injured victim, which of the following answers is best?

A. The residency program is definitely liable, being in violation of Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education rules on consecutive work hours.

B. The resident is solely liable, because he’s the one who owed the duty of due care.

C. The hospital may be a named codefendant, because it knew or should have known that sleep deprivation can impair a person’s driving ability.

D. A and C are correct.

E. Only B and C are correct.

Answer: E. Residency training programs face many potential liabilities, such as those arising from disciplinary actions, employer-employee disputes, sexual harassment, and so on. But one issue deserving attention is auto accidents in overfatigued trainees. The incidence of falling asleep at the wheel is very high – in some surveys, close to 50% – and accidents are more likely to occur in the immediate post-call period.

The two main research papers documenting a relationship between extended work duty and auto accidents are from Laura K. Barger, Ph.D., and Dr. Colin P. West.

In the Barger study, the authors conducted a nationwide Web-based survey of 2,737 interns (N. Engl. J. Med. 2005;352:125-34). They found that an extended work shift (greater than 24 hours) was 2.3 times as likely for a motor vehicle crash, and 5.9 times for a near-miss accident. The researchers calculated that every extended shift in the month increased the crash risk by 9.1% and near-miss risk by 16.2%.

In the West study, the authors performed a prospective, 5-year longitudinal study of a cohort of 340 first-year Mayo Clinic residents in internal medicine (Mayo Clin. Proc. 2012;87:1138-44). In self-generated quarterly filings, 11.3% reported a motor vehicle crash and 43.3% a near-miss accident. Sleepiness (as well as other variables such as depression, burnout, diminished quality of life, and fatigue) significantly increased the odds of a motor vehicle incident in the subsequent 3-month period. Each 1-point increase in fatigue or Epworth Sleepiness Scale score was associated with a 52% and 12% respective increase in a motor vehicle crash.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has formulated rules, which have undergone recent changes, regarding consecutive work-duty hours. Its latest edict in June 2014 can be found on its website and stipulates that “Duty periods of PGY-1 residents must not exceed 16 hours in duration,” and “Duty periods of PGY-2 residents and above may be scheduled to a maximum of 24 hours of continuous duty in the hospital.”

Furthermore, programs must encourage residents to use alertness management strategies in the context of patient care responsibilities. Strategic napping, especially after 16 hours of continuous duty and between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., was a strong suggestion.

In a 2005 lawsuit naming Chicago’s Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center as a defendant, an Illinois court faced the issue of whether a hospital owed a duty to a plaintiff injured by an off-duty resident doctor allegedly suffering from sleep deprivation as a result of a hospital’s policy on working hours (Brewster v. Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center (836 N.E.2d 635 (Il. App. 2005)). The doctor was an intern who had worked 34 hours of a 36-hour work shift, and fell asleep behind the wheel of her car, striking and seriously injuring the driver of an oncoming car.

In its decision, the court noted the plaintiff’s argument that it was reasonably foreseeable and likely that drivers who were sleep deprived would cause traffic accidents resulting in injuries. For public policy reasons, the plaintiff also maintained that such injuries could be prevented if hospitals either changed work schedules of their residents or provided them with additional rest periods.

However, the court held that there was no liability imputed to health care providers for injuries to nonpatient third parties absent the existence of a “special relationship” between the parties.

Thus, training programs or hospitals may or may not be found liable in future such cases or in other jurisdictions – but the new, stricter ACGME rules suggest that they will, at a minimum, be a named defendant.

Note that in some jurisdictions, injured nonpatient third parties have successfully sued doctors for failing to warn their patients that certain medications can adversely affect their driving ability, and for failing to warn about medical conditions, e.g., syncope, that can adversely impact driving.


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