A kitchen fitter, who was paralysed in an accident on the M1 after he lost control of the van he was driving, has been awarded substantial damages against his employer.
Michael Eyres was employed by a Bradford based company, Atkinsons Kitchens and Bedrooms Ltd. He was often required to work long hours.
On the day of the accident, Mr Eyres arrived at the factory at 3.30 am. At 4 am he and managing director Craig Atkinson set off to fit a kitchen in Wiltshire. Mr Atkinson drove but Mr Eyres did not sleep during the journey. The two men then proceeded to Devon to complete another job. It was 7 pm before they commenced the drive back to Bradford. Mr Eyres was content to drive even though he had not had any sleep all day and told Mr Atkinson that he was ‘knackered’.
On the journey home, Mr Eyres had conversations on his mobile phone and also made and received several text messages, although there was no clear evidence of such activity in the 20 minutes or so prior to the accident at 10.15 pm. There was, however, evidence that he had been driving at an average speed of 83.5 mph.
Mr Eyres had been awake continuously for around 19 hours when the accident happened. He braked suddenly and lost control of the van, which rolled twice before coming to a halt on the central reservation. He was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown out of the vehicle and broke his back.
A witness saw no obvious signs from his driving that he had actually fallen asleep although expert evidence suggested that his lack of rest could have induced a momentary episode of ‘micro sleep’. Mr Eyres claimed to have no clear memory of events leading up to the accident.
Mr Eyres claimed that his employer was liable in negligence and/or for statutory breach of duty because it permitted him to drive after working excessively long hours without a proper break.
The issue before the High Court was whether the accident was caused by tiredness and falling asleep or by use of the mobile phone. The judge concluded that mobile phone use was the more probable explanation. The Court of Appeal overturned this decision however, finding that Mr Eyres had shown, on a balance of probabilities, that tiredness was the cause of the accident.
The damages awarded were reduced by a third on account of contributory negligence because Mr Eyres was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident and must have realised that he was at risk of falling asleep.
Employers who insist on employees working long hours without a break may well put them at increased risk and could find themselves held liable for any resulting stress or injury. In addition, it is now an offence to cause or permit a driver to use a hand-held phone while driving so their use whilst driving on company business should be banned and any breach of this rule made a disciplinary offence.