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First Pedestrian Fatality Involving Autonomous Uber Shines a Spotlight on New Legal Issues

self driving car

The inside of a carRecently, we discussed the recent fatal pedestrian accident in Tempe, Arizona involving a self-driving car operated by Uber Technologies. Since that time, we’ve learned that the late-night crash claimed the life of a 49-year-old victim, who was struck by the autonomous vehicle as she was walking her bicycle across a city street. Video footage of the crash was also released, showing the car’s safety driver – intended to take control of the autonomous vehicle in certain situations – was not looking at the road at the time of the collision.

Uber has since suspended testing of its self-driving vehicles in multiple U.S. cities, and officials from the state of Arizona and federal regulators from the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are still conducting investigations.

In the wake of the accident, a national focus has been placed on self-driving technology, as well as safety concerns over testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads, a lack of regulatory oversight, the role of safety drivers, and the ethical implications of technology which humans must program to make moral decisions involving life or death. Those issues are certainly critical to public safety, especially if self-driving cars are to be the future of American roadways. However, there are also other questions being raised, particularly in relation to new legal issues and liability in self-driving vehicle accidents.

Who’s Liable When an Autonomous Vehicle Strikes and Kills a Pedestrian?

Following last week’s fatal accident, the question of who can be held liable for an autonomous vehicle accident has risen to the top of our nation’s collective focus. While the issue of liability in crashes involving self-driving vehicles has been debated throughout the development of this technology, the recent wreck has introduced a sense of urgency in determining an answer, as well as a greater sense of gravity that accompanies an actual death, rather than hypotheticals or property damage. The accident was the first pedestrian fatality involving an autonomous car, and one of the first deaths of a public citizen linked to any autonomous vehicle.

While liability in some car accident cases may be as straightforward as determining when a negligent driver ran a red light, it becomes an issue of tremendous complexity when it involves self-driving vehicles, and this recent accident in particular. That’s due to questions about which standards of law apply to these unique and novel legal issues. For example:

  • Strict Liability – While investigations into the crash will influence if and how the victim’s family has a potential case, they may be able to pursue claims under the standard of strict liability, rather than the standard of negligence that applies to human drivers. Strict liability is one of three general theories of tort liability (negligence, no-fault, and strict liability) and is prominent in many personal injury cases involving products, including vehicles. Although vehicles have and auto products which cause injury or death are typically addressed in our civil justice system using a strict liability standard, the unique merging of driver and car introduces new concepts about its applicability in self-driving accident cases.
  • Multiple Parties – The fatal Uber pedestrian accident case, and others involving self-driving cars, may involve multiple parties that share liability. This includes not only Uber, which owned and operated the test vehicle and employed the safety driver behind the wheel, but also the vehicle manufacturer and / or software developers that created the autonomous technology powering the vehicle when it crashed. Proving split liability in this situation would require extensive evidence in the form of data, as well as greater understanding of technology, responsibilities, and oversight involved in autonomous vehicle production.
  • Comparative Negligence and Defenses – Because there may be options to impose liability on multiple parties in autonomous vehicle crashes (vehicle operator / safety driver, vehicle manufacturer, the company which created and released the vehicle, or software / technology developers), there are also possible defenses. This includes comparative negligence, not only for operators who interfere with technology and cause crashes or other human drivers on the road, but also potential victims who contributed to their own injuries. It may also include product misuse, such as when a driver or vehicle occupant disregard directions or alter technology in a way that makes the vehicle unsafe, or even defenses that highlight the technology as state of the art, with no safer alternatives available at the time of manufacturing.

These issues may or may not be addressed in the case of the fatal Arizona crash, as Uber may be quick to settle the case, or potentially subject the victim’s family to a broad and binding arbitration agreement if she ever downloaded the app. Because a settlement is likely, purely for its PR purposes, the first self-driving vehicle pedestrian death may not become the first test case for these issues, or provide any case law to build upon. However, it will have thrust these critical questions into the spotlight, and will encourage experts, advocates, and lawmakers to find answers before autonomous vehicles hit our public roads en masse.

Moving Forward: Autonomous Vehicle Liability

Autonomous vehicles may be nearing full-scale implementation on our roads, but the recent Uber accident shows that autonomous car liability is still a new and developing area of law and policy. As responsibility for driving and operating a vehicle safely shifts from human drivers to autonomous technology, existing liability laws and standards applied to current cases will be forced to evolve in order to identify the most appropriate cause for damages when victims are injured or killed. And as liability evolves, so must insurance. For example, specialized auto insurance may give way to no-fault insurance systems where victims are covered and compensated through their own coverage. This would further impact how victims are able to secure compensation after self-driving vehicle crashes.

If there is any silver lining to the recent tragedy, it is that it has created a stronger sense of urgency in finding answers to these important and difficult questions, and prompting solutions in the form of guidelines, legislation (at both a state and federal level), and new concepts of liability. These developments are just as important and innovative as the self-driving vehicles they’re intended to regulate, and they will be something everyone – not just personal injury lawyers – should keep a close eye on.

Biren Law Group is a Los Angeles personal injury law firm with proven experience protecting the rights of injured victims and families, including those who suffer losses as a result of auto accidents. If you wish to discuss a recent accident in Los Angeles or Southern California, contact us for a free consultation.