Michael Eyres was flung from his van after momentarily falling asleep at the wheel and can now sue the company where he worked as a kitchen fitter for damages expected to exceed £1 million.
His final award will be reduced by 33% because of his own contributory negligence in not wearing a seatbelt and knowing he was at risk of falling asleep after working for 19 hours.
But Lord Justice Ward, who gave the ruling of the Court of Appeal, said Mr Eyres, who was 20 at the time of the accident on the M1 in 2004, was ‘in that predicament because his employers had put him there’.
Next to Mr Eyres, fast asleep in the van was Craig Atkinson, the 28-year-old managing director of Bradford-based Atkinsons Kitchens and Bedrooms.
The judge said: ‘Mr Atkinson’s saying ‘eating’s cheating’ and ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ summed up the company’s philosophy.’
Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said: ‘This case is a tragic reminder to employers of the need to manage occupational road risk.
‘Companies need to be sure that their employees are in a fit condition to drive and have had adequate quality sleep before getting behind the wheel.’
Lord Justice Ward and two other appeal judges overturned a High Court ruling that Mr Eyres was to blame for the accident because he was using a mobile telephone.
He said that on the balance of probability the cause of the accident was the driver falling asleep.
On the day of the accident, Mr Eyres had arrived at work at 3.30am after just four and a half hours’ sleep when he set off with Mr Atkinson to fit a kitchen in Swindon, Wiltshire, 111 miles away. The pair shared the driving and work, which was finished at 2.30pm when Mr Atkinson said they had another job in Sidmouth, Devon, 122 miles away. They finished the second job at 7pm, when Mr Eyres began the drive home.
Although he asked Mr Atkinson if they were going to find somewhere to stay the night, the judge said Mr Eyres raised no serious objection to travelling home and was ‘quite content to do the driving’.
Mr Atkinson had asked him twice during the journey if he ‘was all right’.
Just 32 miles short of home, Mr Eyres braked suddenly and lost control of his van, which overturned. His back was broken and he will not walk again for the rest of his life.
In the High Court in Leeds last year, Mr Justice Crane said Mr Eyres’s driving was ‘grossly irresponsible and dangerous’.
Damages will be assessed at a later hearing, but the appeal court awarded a £400,000 interim payment.
Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Fleet Safety Association, said: ‘Although the driver himself made no attempt whatsoever to manage the risk he was exposing himself to, it appears that the employer encouraged a risk-taking approach to driving and probably deserves this wake-up call.’