Law Firm News


Law Firm News: Self-driving Cars and Accident Liability

By Woody DuRant

Ever since the invention of the automobile, car accidents have occurred.  But where does liability rest if you’re hit by a self-driving vehicle?  Up until now, determining the person at fault has been quite simple; as a general rule, the person who has broken the law (i.e. ran a stop light, illegally shifting lanes, not stopping fast enough, etc.) is the person considered at fault or liable. For more Law Firm News, keep reading.

Now, with the invention of and growing interest in the self-driving vehicle (Google Parent Company Spins Off Self-Driving Car Business, New York Times, December 13, 2017), who is responsible when a vehicle breaks the law–is it the person who owns the self-driving car or is it the company who designed and/or manufactured the self-driving car?

Automakers and technology firms have been racing to capture the self-driving car market, claiming that a computer driven car is safer than a human driven car.  However, there have been several car accidents that have occurred with self-driving vehicles, one resulting in a fatality.  On May 7, 2016, a self-driving vehicle failed to properly brake causing the vehicle to crash into a turning tractor trailer, the man in the driver seat was killed. On Sept 23, 2016, a self-driving vehicle failed to see a car running a red light, a T-bone collision resulted.  Luckily there were no serious injuries.

Currently the way the laws are written, insurance companies understand that car accident victims have the state laws on their side.  However, federal regulators have already begun researching and gaining knowledge on this new field of technology. Federal regulators plan to create new guidelines for self-driving vehicles.  This development could impact an injured person’s right to receive a settlement for damages incurred if in an accident with a self-driving car.  More often than not State laws are blocked by Federal regulations that regulate the same area as Federal regulation preempts state law claims.

In 2008, the United States Supreme court ruled that if Federal regulations set requirements for products on the U.S. market, state law claims are prevented from creating different requirements for the same products.  Riegal v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312 (2008).

The significance of this controversial decision, could have the following impact on the future of self-driving car accidents:

  1. If the Federal government puts requirements and approval processes on the manufacturing of self-driving vehicles, it is likely that States will be unable to regulate or create laws in the same area;
  2. And if the abovementioned occurs, case law suggests that it is unlikely that the Federal government would allow the victims of a self-driving car accident, to sue car companies and manufacturers. This means insurance companies would be immune, or wouldn’t have to pay claims against product malfunctions.

New technologies can simplify everyday activities and tasks, while at the same time bring about complexities and unprecedented problems.  As the inventors create, the lawmakers look to protect; whether it be lawmakers in Washington, D.C. or the ones in your own backyard.  The distinction could impact you immensely.  Given the recent ruling and precedent, it would not be favorable to be a self-driving car accident victim.