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Who gets sued when my driverless car crashes and injures someone?

April 9, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Is a driverless car pay-out fund that compensates car accident victims the solution?

I’ve written a lot about the liability and tort issues being raised with the exciting future of driverless cars. To be clear, I am a big proponent of this technology. It brings wonderful possibilities to the table, such as a safer trucking industry without tired truckers and enabling people with disabilities to drive.  It will increase productivity and it promises to save many lives.

And if I – an attorney who helps people injured in motor vehicle accidents – will have to find another area of law to practice one day because driverless technology will mean that soon there won’t be car accidents, then so much the better.

How will driverless cars help prevent car accidents from occurring?  Driverless vehicles have technology systems that sense the surrounding environment and navigate without a human driver behind the wheel.  They will save lives by preventing crashes caused by human error, because let’s face it… humans just aren’t great drivers.  In other words, the vast majority of car accidents and truck accidents that I work on as an attorney are caused by people making preventable mistakes.  Driverless cars promise to eliminate many of these crashes.

But driverless cars will still cause some crashes.  What about the lives lost when an autonomous vehicle injures or kills someone?

I wrote about who’s liable in an accident involving a driverless car. The answer to that question is going to depend in large part on what state legislatures around the nation do. It also raises the prospect for federal legislation to create a consistent and uniform body of laws.

However (for now at least), the most obvious options for any attorney bringing a tort action would include the following:

  • The driverless car’s owner under Michigan’s Owner Liability Law.
  • The driverless car’s “operator,” i.e., the person who engages the driverless technology.
  • The driverless car’s manufacturer.
  • The manufacturer of the technology which converts a traditional, driver-required car into a driverless car.
  • The “upfitter” or technician or specialist who installs the technology to convert a traditional, driver-required car into a driverless car.

I recently read an article on National Journal, “Who Gets Sued When Your Robot Car Causes a Crash?” that has a solution to protecting injured drivers.  The solution was one that I also had posed the year before when I was interviewed by a California legal newspaper.

This is what the National Journal reporter wrote:

“A payout fund set up to compensate victims of driverless car accidents. That could be modeled similar to the Health and Human Services Department’s vaccine injury compensation fund, which takes a 75-cent tax from every purchased vaccine. The no-fault program helps those who have been hurt by vaccine-related incidents without exposing the medical community to legal battles and expensive damages payouts.”

These are all possible solutions. Many of my trial lawyer brothers and sisters won’t like a compensation fund. But such a fund may strike the appropriate balance between protecting an emerging technology that truly promises to change our world and save so many lives, and yet also provide tort compensation for victims of crashes caused by driverless cars when these crashes inevitably occur.

The point is that we need to look at many solutions. And the larger and most important point is that we do not protect the public by giving negligent manufacturers total civil immunity to tort liability.

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