Who is at fault in automated car accidents?

Autonomous cars are right on the verge of becoming commonplace in most metropolitan areas throughout the country. In fact, many major cities already have autonomous car testing in place now.

However, the law has not caught up with the science regarding autonomous, self-driving cars. Especially when it comes to accident claims, there is nothing close to settled law. Who is liable for accidents caused by autonomous cars? Are these negligence claims, products liability claims or what?

A Recent Tragedy

A recent, well-publicized accident involving an autonomous Uber car resulted in a tragedy.

In response to this accident, we posted a 3-part blog exploring some of the key questions of this case.

There are a few interesting aspects to the legal claim resulting from the fatal Uber accident:

  • The video clearly shows that there was only a split second between the time the pedestrian became visible and the point when the car struck her. Almost no driver in the world could have responded quickly enough to stop the car or avoid striking the victim.
  • Even though liability was questionable at best, Uber settled the case astonishingly quickly. This suggests that the company wanted to avoid litigation at all costs.
  • The video, combined with the company’s extreme quick settlement, simply highlights the questions of liability.

Who Is Liable?

In normal motor vehicle accident claims, it is clear who the defendant is. Most accidents result from one driver making errors or driving negligently. Because they are at fault for the accident, the defendant is then liable to cover the costs of damages suffered by the plaintiff.

There are some cases in which an error in the car is the cause of the accident, like a failed braking system or failed airbag deployment. These cases fall under products liability because neither driver is technically responsible for the accident; it was the fault of the manufacture or design of the car itself.

Autonomous cars fall into a gray area between normal accident claims and products liability claims. While the literature around self-driving cars makes clear that the person in the car (not the car itself) should stay aware and is ultimately responsible for safe driving, accidents can be caused by the technology – accidents that could not be avoided even with the most aware driver behind the wheel.

So, what happens in self-driving car accident claims? Who is ultimately liable for injuries and other losses?

The truth is that these questions have yet to be answered by the courts. Some cases need to get past the stage of settlements so that the courts can rule on these cases and the law can begin to get settled. Alternatively, the legislature could step up and create clear legislation in this regard.

Until that happens, accident victims need to call an experienced attorney and fight for their rights.

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