Commerce secretary takes medical leave after crashes

Seizure blamed for Bryson’s role in hit-and-runs

Commerce Secretary John Bryson was found unconscious in his car, and government officials said he had a seizure.

WASHINGTON - The White House says Commerce Secretary John Bryson will take a medical leave as he undergoes tests and evaluations after suffering a seizure in connection with two traffic accidents in the Los Angeles area.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Monday that President Obama’s thoughts were with Bryson and his family.

The Commerce Department said Bryson transferred his functions and duties as secretary to Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank, who is now acting commerce secretary.

The department said Bryson suffered a seizure on Saturday and had “limited recall’’ of the events related to the incident.

The bizarre series of events happened Saturday afternoon when Bryson hit a car stopped for a train — twice — then rammed into another vehicle a few minutes later. He was found unconscious in his car, and government officials said Monday he had a seizure, which could play a role in whether he is charged with felony hit-and-run.

It was not clear whether the medical episode preceded or followed the collisions, but Bryson has not suffered a seizure before, said a department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secretary’s medical history.

The crashes drew attention because of health concerns involving a member of the Cabinet, as well as the challenge that investigators face when trying to determine whether someone should be held criminally responsible because of adverse health.

Carney said Monday that officials were still trying to learn more about the accidents. “We’re obviously concerned about the incident, concerned about Secretary Bryson’s health-related issues that played a role in this incident,’’ he said.

Bryson, 68, was driving alone in a Lexus in San Gabriel, a community of about 40,000 northeast of Los Angeles, when he struck the rear of a vehicle that had stopped for a passing train, authorities said.

He spoke briefly with the three occupants and then hit their car again as he departed, investigators said. They followed him while calling police. He was issued a citation for felony hit-and-run, although he has not been charged.

Bryson then struck a second car in the nearby city of Rosemead, where he was found unconscious in his car, authorities said.

Bryson returned to Washington after a brief hospital stay, department spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said. Officials said Bryson was not on state business, was driving a personal car, and did not have a security detail at the time.

He took a breath test that did not detect any alcohol, but investigators were awaiting the results from a blood test, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s Captain Mike Parker.

Commerce officials said he was given medication to treat the seizure. Paramedics treated two people in the first collision for pain, but a couple involved in the second crash declined medical aid.

The case was being reviewed by sheriff’s investigators and will probably be submitted to prosecutors in the coming days. “In most cases, it is presented to the DA’s office to make a decision,’’ sheriff’s Lieutenant Margarito Robles said.

Defense attorney Steve Meister said he has represented people who have been involved in crashes while having seizures. He recalled how one woman struck another vehicle and did not remember anything.

No one was injured, but the woman was arrested for investigation of driving under the influence because she was acting disoriented, Meister said. The woman did not have any drugs or alcohol in her system, but she pleaded to a misdemeanor crime.

“It turns out she had a history’’ of seizures, Meister said. “If I was [Bryson’s] lawyer, I would try to find all the evidence there was to back up what he’s already said.’’

The episode is consistent with someone who has suffered a series of epileptic seizures, said Dr. Jerome Engel Jr., a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is not involved in Bryson’s care.

After a seizure, a person is often confused, and that state of confusion can last for a while. “You may even seem to be alert and awake, but you’re not really behaving normally,’’ Engel said.

Under California law, a doctor has to report a patient who complains of lapses of consciousness or whose epileptic seizures pose an impairment to driving. In those cases, a person cannot drive unless he has been seizure-free for three months.

Bryson had been in California to deliver the commencement address Thursday at Pasadena Polytechnic School, a secondary school that his four children attended.