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Sleep disorders 'have legal implications'

By: Michelle Henderson
15 October, 2012

When the sleep medicine and legal worlds occasionally collide, Sydney sleep physician Dr Peter Buchanan is often there.

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research practitioner has provided expert reports for numerous court cases, to both the prosecution and the defence, where sleep has been at issue.

The most common criminal cases involving sleep deprivation or disorders are driving offences, but Dr Buchanan points to muddier legal waters often involving sexual assaults where the accused looks to sleep as a defence.

The most notorious cases are the ones involving some violent act including sexual assault and rape, "...but the perpetrator claims that he, it's usually a 'he', was asleep and unaware of the nature of the implications of the act that was being performed at the time," Dr Buchanan told reporters from the Australasian Sleep Association conference, where he is speaking on Saturday.

These cases often attract a high level of media interest and defendants charged with sexual offences have then considered the same argument for their case, Dr Buchanan said.

"Because it's become more widely publicised, people - who are charged with offences like sexual assault or rape where it occurs in a night time or sleep setting - have looked to it," he said.

These cases pop up from time to time but fatal and non-fatal car crashes involving sleep deprivation are more common, Dr Buchanan said.

He has provided expert opinion to several cases in the past five years involving drivers who got behind the wheel after going days without sleep before crashing, seriously injuring or killing occupants of their own car or other vehicles.

In one case, a worker who collided head on with another car on the way home was found to have severe undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a severe sleep breathing disorder characterised by heavy snoring.

Dr Buchanan said one of the challenges for sleep physicians was to educate the public and other specialists, including the legal profession, legislators and occupational health and safety, about the potential liability of sleep disorders.

Sleep deprivation or disorders could affect the ability of workers to operate machinery, heighten the potential for medical errors, increase the risk of road accidents, and cloud individual judgement.

"Your ability to think clearly and precisely and make carefully nuanced judgements can be impacted if you have a sleep disorder," he said.

Source: AAP

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