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Remembering Patrick Nunez

April 19, 2016 by Steven M. Gursten

Patrick’s untimely death, caused by a truck driver with epilepsy, serves as an example of the trucking safety crisis we face today

Patrick Nunez, image

The case of my client, Patrick Nunez  is an example of the larger trucking safety crisis we all face today with truckers who should not be behind the wheel because of dangerous and disabling medical conditions. I wrote about this truck safety crisis yesterday, after my appearance as a truck attorney expert on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.

Patrick Nunez was killed by a trucker with epilepsy.  I never got to meet him, but by all accounts, he was a wonderful man, and a loving father and husband. He was hit by a fully-loaded gravel hauler truck on a highway in Detroit and was killed. The driver of the truck that smashed into his car had epilepsy, suffered from seizures, and was on powerful epilepsy medication called Tegretol that also causes drowsiness and delayed reaction time.

He was exactly the type of driver that the CBS News piece was referring to that should not be driving commercial trucks on our roads today.

I reached a settlement for Patrick’s wife and children, due to the trucking company’s staggering negligence.  I proved the driver didn’t have a medical qualification file containing his medical records that revealed his epilepsy. In addition, the driver was related to the trucking company owners, who “overlooked” the fact that he had epilepsy and still allowed him to drive.

As in most of my truck cases, there was not just one act of negligence that led to the truck wreck that took Patrick’s life. There were instead a series of failures and omissions that led to his untimely death. The greatest failure was that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, which have been adopted in their entirety in Michigan as in most states, exist to prevent situations exactly like this one.  This truck driver with epilepsy never should have been put behind the wheel of an overloaded gravel hauler.

In fact, there is a regulation directly on point. Here’s the FMSCA Regulation saying a trucker can never get an epilepsy waiver:

Epilepsy §391.41(b)(8)

A person is physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle if that person: Has no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of epilepsy or any other condition which is likely to cause loss of consciousness or any loss of ability to control a motor vehicle. Epilepsy is a chronic functional disease characterized by seizures or episodes that occur without warning, resulting in loss of voluntary control which may lead to loss of consciousness and/or seizures. Therefore, the following drivers cannot be qualified: (1) a driver who has a medical history of epilepsy; (2) a driver who has a current clinical diagnosis of epilepsy; or (3) a driver who is taking antiseizure medication.

But remembering Patrick isn’t about the way he passed away. It’s about the way this man lived.

CBS interviewed Patrick’s sister, Cynthia Nunez, also an attorney in Michigan. Cynthia has joined me on television before (here’s the television news segment and our appearance on Due Process) and she’s passionate about advocating for trucking safety and remembering her brother.

As Cynthia said, the way Patrick lived was in stark contrast to the way he was tragically killed. Patrick was a scientist for the U.S. Army at its TACOM/TARDEC headquarters in Warren, Michigan. One of his award-winning and most cherished projects was to keep soldiers safe while they were in their vehicles in combat. Meanwhile, his elderly mother had dementia. And Patrick, with his family, made the tough decision to intervene and take away her keys to keep others safe on the road.

How incredibly sad and ironic that his life was taken by a company that displayed completely opposite values and choices.

Cynthia stressed that Patrick was a wonderful example to his young daughters that a man could be gentle, yet strong.

I want to sincerely thank Cynthia for her courage in speaking out to CBS in honor of Patrick’s memory and this critical safety issue.

Patrick will not be forgotten. And courtesy of Cynthia, here’s a wonderful tribute to Patrick that was read at his memorial.

Unfortunately, CBS didn’t share Patrick’s story with the rest of the country in the news segment.

The network did mention a truck driver who injured 35 passengers in an Ohio bus accident. This driver blacked out after he had been told to get sleep apnea test by a DOT-certified medical examiner, but never pursued the test until after the crash. In another case, a Greyhound driver who didn’t disclose he had sleep apnea collided with a pickup truck, killing the driver.

I know this occurs because as an attorney, I see it day in and day out in the catastrophic truck and bus accident cases that I litigate. But it’s a world that most people know nothing about. I’m grateful that the CBS News investigation also yielded hundreds of cases where drivers deliberately omitted disclosing dangerous medical conditions from the medical form at their health exams.

What attorneys must know about truck drivers with medical conditions

Most attorneys who litigate truck accident cases do not know the rules that drivers and companies must follow.  But attorneys who are entrusted with helping the families of people devastated by truck accidents in Michigan and throughout the country must know the mandatory safety rules regarding truck drivers with serious medical conditions.

The FMCSA has the basic physical requirements that any trucker must meet to drive a truck. These can be found at 49 CFR: 391.41. Truck drivers are required to not have any of the following conditions that could potentially interfere with operation of a commercial motor vehicle:

  • Impairments of the foot, leg, hand, arm or finger.
  • Epilepsy (as discussed above).
  • Psychiatric conditions.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Insulin dependent diabetes.
  • Specific cardiovascular or respiratory conditions.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue this topic with a blog post on what the recent studies say on just how many truck drivers with medical conditions are out there.

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