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Feds May Be Liable for Sleepy Officer’s Accident

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) - A Navy chief petty officer who fell asleep behind the wheel and injured others in a crash may have been acting in the line of duty, a federal judge ruled.

Nicholas Jungman got behind the wheel of his Ford pickup truck on the morning of Sept. 16, 2010, after spending a full day in an exhausting course meant to prepare him for a promotion to chief petty officer. The Navy had even provided sponsors to assist the tired inductees with their needs before a pinning ceremony scheduled for noon that day.

Rather than rest and prepare for the ceremony at Navy-provided facilities, Jungman had returned to his home on the base.

The officer rested, dressed and donned a pair of shoes from his home before heading to the pinning.

With just 25 minutes to go until the ceremony, Jungman fell asleep on the drive back to base. His truck veered toward oncoming traffic and hit two cars, one of which was a Honda Civic driven by Paula and Lucas Garcia. The Garcias sued the U.S. government for negligence in April 2012.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos refused to either dismiss the complaint or grant the government summary judgment on Friday.

"The United States has not supplied the court with a case directly on point," Ramos wrote. "The instant facts do not fit neatly into other cases involving traffic accidents where the military employee is clearly following all of his employer's instructions or clearly so far beyond those instructions as to be going about his own business or on a classic 'frolic and detour.'"

"Whether an employee is working in the course and scope of employment is not necessarily determined by whether he does exactly what he is told," Ramos added. "If that were the test, the slightest deviation - indeed acting without specific instructions - would exonerate the employer."

To determine whether Jungman was on the job at the time of the collision, Ramos considered who was in control of Jungman's time, the purpose of his mission, and the means and manner of his conduct.

"In this case, the United States, as employer, had exhausted its employee, Chief Jungman," Ramos wrote. "Anticipating that and with that knowledge, its plan was to keep him on duty, but not require him to report to his duty station for normal work. Instead, his 'tasks' were to rest, clean up, and prepare for the pinning ceremony. While facilities were made available on base for those tasks, he was not prohibited from getting in his own truck to drive to a place where he was expected to accomplish his tasks. His sponsor watched him drive away and did not make any effort to stop him or report him. He was not on leave. He was not at liberty. According to the affidavits supplied by the United States, Chief Jungman was on duty and subject to his employer's authority and control."

Ramos rejected the government's assertion that Jungman was disobedient or that his trip home in a personal vehicle was not within the course and scope of his employment.

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