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Ten Dead in Tragic Accident

A FedEx tractor-trailer on Interstate 5 near Orland, California, swerved across a grassy median and into oncoming traffic last week, hitting a car and a school bus and killing ten in an explosive blaze. The bus was filled with 44 high school students and several chaperones on their way to visit Humboldt State University as part of a program that brings prospective low-income and first generation students to tour the school. Both drivers died, in addition to three chaperones and five students. The California Highway Patrol has launched an investigation into the possible causes of the accident, but the results likely won't be available for months to come. For now, all we can do is ask questions and mourn this tragic loss.

Of course, the central question here is what caused the FedEx tractor-trailer to swerve into oncoming traffic? Was it poor weather or road conditions? Was the driver swerving to avoid something else happening up ahead? Did the driver fall asleep?

Obviously, without the results of the report, any conclusions drawn will be purely speculative. But, I am currently litigating a truck accident case in which a driver fell asleep at the wheel and swerved into oncoming traffic, and I would not at all be surprised if this turned out to be the cause here.

It wouldn't be the first time. Here's another accident in which the driver of a FedEx truck fell asleep and crossed a median into oncoming traffic. And here's another one, and another one after that, and another one after that. Believe me, there's plenty more where that came from.

There's also tons of documentation out there that proves just how widespread driver sleep deprivation can be, even despite California legislation that regulates how many long shifts truck drivers can work. A 2012 study made the case that as many as one in ten transportation workers (truck drivers, airline pilots, etc.) may be sleep deprived. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation could be a contributing factor in as many as 30%-40% of truck accidents. The same cannot be said of mechanical failures, heart attacks, and other freak occurrences of the magnitude that could have caused this driver to swerve into oncoming traffic.

Again, the investigation into this terrible accident is still ongoing, and we won't know the cause for a few months. This is merely one theory as to what may have happened, and it could easily be proven wrong. But it's a theory that makes sense. Sleep deprivation among truck drivers is a pervasive problem that causes accidents all the time, and it could very well be at the root of this one.

But there is another potential problem here. FedEx has historically attempted to keep its drivers at arms length by classifying them as independent contractors, not employees. The goal here is to limit not only the benefits that these workers should be entitled to, but also to cut off liability exposure in cases like these. FedEx has argued that it is not responsible for negligence of the driver of its FedEx truck since the driver is not a FedEx employee.

I sincerely hope that is not an issue in this case. This driver was obviously in the course and scope of employment with FedEx and FedEx is financially able to bear the responsibility for this catastrophe. FedEx needs to step up and accept full responsibility here, or be made to by a California jury.

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