No one denies that Martin Erzinger, a Colorado resident, fell asleep behind the wheel of his 2010 Mercedes Benz. No one contests that the unconscious Erzinger struck and seriously injured a bicyclist, Dr. Steven Milo, on July 3 at 1:30 in the afternoon. Even Erzinger himself admits to driving away from the scene, unaware that he had hit Dr. Milo or caused damage to anything beyond his own car. He wasn’t hard to track down, and police originally charged Erzinger with two misdemeanors and the felony offense of leaving the scene of an accident causing serious bodily injury.
Here’s where the case begins to take a turn to the weird side. The local district attorney offered to drop the felony charges if Erzinger would plea to the misdemeanors. That didn’t sit well with the attorneys for Dr. Milo, and they successfully pressed for the reinstatement of felony charges. Erzinger, faced with mounting a defense for the felony charge, did what many people in his position would do: he blamed the crash on something else. Though diagnosed with sleep apnea, Erzinger contends that it was new car fumes, not just an existing medical condition, that caused him to nod off behind the wheel. Erzinger’s attorney even found an accident reconstruction specialist who would testify that the Mercedes’ “new car smell” may have contributed to Erzinger falling asleep behind the wheel. The accident reconstruction specialist is on record as saying,
“Harmful and noxious gases emitted from the upholstery can infiltrate the driver’s compartment and potentially alter the driver.”
Mercedes-Benz, likely named in civil litigation related to the case, isn’t commenting (and I don’t blame them). I don’t suffer from sleep apnea, but I’ve driven a lot of cars a lot of miles while less than fully rested. Sometimes, just pulling over to stretch your legs is enough, while other times nothing but a big-gulp coffee and a handful of No-Doz will do. I’ve never thought of blaming the “new car smell” for my troubles, but if Erzinger’s defense works, I may need to reconsider that. My FJ’s only got about 20,000 miles on it, and it still smells like a new car if I park it in the sun.