With self-driving cars taking to the roads, it is inevitable that there will be accidents. Who will be liable for accidents involving driverless cars? How will the legal process change for these cases from what it is today and how can a Charleston car accident lawyer help?
This is part three of a series discussing driverless cars and their implications. In part one, we asked Are Self-Driving Cars Safe? In part two, we wanted to know, Are Self-Driving Cars Legal In South Carolina?
Today, we discuss self-driving cars and personal injury laws. How exactly do current personal injury laws apply to self-driving cars? How might relevant laws change in the future as self-driving cars rise in popularity?
Our lawyers discuss the future of self-driving cars and personal injury law.
Current Self-Driving Car Lawsuits
Have there been lawsuits about self-driving cars?
Yes. Self-driving cars have already been the subject of lawsuits in the United States.
One case is a wrongful death claim brought against Tesla. A 44-year-old man was hit and killed by a Tesla in 2018. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit blame the crash on Tesla’s self-driving technology. They say the Tesla accelerated suddenly when the vehicle in front of it changed lanes. The Tesla Autopilot technology failed to recognize the person, a motorcyclist, who stopped on the side of the road. Because of the sudden acceleration, the pedestrians were not anticipating the approach of the Tesla.
The technology involved in the case is adaptive cruise control. With the technology, the driver does not have to manually adjust their speed when there is a slower vehicle in front of them. The vehicle slows automatically to match the speed of the vehicle in front. If their vehicle or the one in front of them changes lanes, the vehicle speeds back up to the maximum speed set by the driver.
In this case, the Autopilot sensors did not detect the motorcyclist on the side of the road. The driver failed to disengage the technology and timely resume control of the vehicle to prevent impact.
In a similar case, Tesla’s Autopilot technology failed to detect a motorcycle traveling in front of the vehicle. The victim was struck from behind. Autonomous emergency braking did not activate to slow the Tesla and prevent the crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating. The victim’s family has filed a lawsuit. A similar crash and traffic fatality occurred in Utah. The first known Tesla Autopilot pedestrian death lawsuit dates back to 2020.
Another claim seeks to hold the city of Tempe, AZ for having a paved, pedestrian pathway without crosswalks or lights that a self-driving vehicle can identify and respond to.
There have been several lawsuits involving car accidents and self-driving cars. However, case law remains in its infancy.
These lawsuits highlight the emerging questions around self-driving legal liability. Is the vehicle manufacturer or the vehicle owner liable for a self-driving car crash? How is liability determined? What legal standards apply?
Driver Negligence vs. Manufacturing Defects
Current personal injury laws recognize both driver negligence and manufacturing defects as possible grounds for legal liability for a car crash.
The grounds for a negligence claim include:
- Duty of care owed to the plaintiff
- A negligent act or omission
- Damages to the plaintiff
- Causation of the accident and damages
See Thomasko v. Poole, 349 S.C. 7 (2002).
As Thomasko discussed, vehicle drivers have several duties owed to others on the road. They must:
- Lookout for hazards
- Adjust their speed to hazardous conditions
- Yield when appropriate
- Signal when required
When a crash occurs because of a driver’s actions, or their lack of action, they may be legally liable for damages resulting to a victim.
While driver error is one ground for legal liability, manufacturing and design defects can make a vehicle manufacturer legally liable for a crash. A party who sells a product in a defective condition is liable for physical harm and property damage resulting to consumers. A vehicle may be defective because it is unreasonably dangerous. Manufacturer liability extends to components made by others with inspecting and testing burdens falling on the seller. S.C. Code Ann. § 15-73-10; Nelson v. Coleman Co., 249 S.C. 652, 657 (1967).
Negligence on the part of the vehicle manufacturer is not required. Even when the seller exercises all possible care in the design and sale of their product, manufacturer liability still applies if it is unreasonably dangerous.
Applying negligence and manufacturing defects to self-driving vehicle claims
As driverless cars become common, negligence claims may decrease while manufacturing defect claims increase. When the vehicle’s automated system takes over, the driver has fewer opportunities to act negligently. In fact, there may be a point where there is no person in the vehicle that is legally considered a driver.
Victims may shift legal claims from drivers to manufacturers. If self-driving technology results in an accident, it would not be surprising to see plaintiffs point the blame at the technology’s design or its malfunction. As self-driving vehicles become increasingly popular, automated technology will take center stage in accident claims.
The Future of Legal Liability and Driverless Cars
The fact that a car crash involves driverless technology is not, by itself, enough to impose legal liability on a vehicle manufacturer for a crash.
Instead, the victim must show that the vehicle was defective. Generally, this will be done with proof that the technology is flawed in its design.
Lawyers must take great care to understand the technology involved. They must investigate and be able to explain the sequence of events causing the crash. With expert testimony, they must explain what the technology was meant to do and how it malfunctioned. Finally, they must prove causation between the malfunction and the harm to the victim.
While the advent of automated vehicles may shift a number of car accident claims from negligence to manufacturing defect causes of action, the burden of proof remains on the plaintiff. They must take care to prove the elements of their claim, keeping in mind that scientific and technical information is likely key. The plaintiff, through their legal counsel and the use of expert witnesses, must be prepared to meet these evidentiary challenges.
Traffic Ticket Liability for Self-Driving Vehicles
South Carolina law enforcement officers issue tens of thousands of speeding tickets each year. (WRDW, Georgia, South Carolina Launch Crackdown on Speeding). The millions of dollars collected from these tickets fund a variety of government functions and programs.
Perhaps this financial incentive will prompt governments to hold people or companies liable when driverless vehicles violate road rules. For now, it is the vehicle operator who receives a traffic ticket, not its owner or manufacturer (See S.C. Code § 56-5-715, removing liability for a traffic or parking violation from the owner where they provide information about the vehicle’s lessee or renter at the time of a violation.)
Most traffic offenses in South Carolina address the person who drives. (See S.C. Code § 56-5-2920 defining reckless driving as when a person drives a vehicle in a willful or wanton manner). A driver is a person who is in actual control of the vehicle. S.C. Code § 51-1-10(21).
In its current state, that is where the law ends. At Level One or Two of vehicle automation, the driver is still primarily in control of the vehicle. However, by level Three and thereafter, the question becomes more complicated. A person must be in the driver’s seat and prepared to take control at Level Three.
However, it is not clear whether they are operating the vehicle by legal definitions until they affirmatively assume control of it. At the highest level, Level Five of vehicle automation, the human is not involved in any driving task. Human-operated steering and brakes are not even required at Level Five.
Almost certainly, future legislation or case law will define a driver in the context of driverless technology. These questions will be answered by the legislature or higher courts, allowing the lower courts to continue their mundane task of processing thousands of traffic tickets, surely finding a way to direct revenue to government coffers.
Is a self-driving vehicle considered a vehicle under South Carolina law?
Yes. South Carolina Code § 56-1-10 defines a motor vehicle as every vehicle that is self-propelled. Self-driving vehicles are self-propelled.
Can you drink and drive in a self-driving car?
S.C. Code § 56-5-2930 is the South Carolina drunk driving law. It says a person may not drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Are you driving a motor vehicle when you are in a self-driving vehicle?
The South Carolina motor vehicle code defines a driver. It is a person who is in actual physical control of a vehicle. (S.C. § 56-5-400).
Likely, whether a person can drink and drive in a self-driving car hinges on the extent of control that they exercise over the vehicle. The current technology used by most consumers today still leaves the driver in control and ready to take over operation – even when using hands-free driving.
As technology becomes more advanced, the person inside the vehicle will have progressively less control. If technology advances to a point that a person is truly not in control, they may not meet the definition of drunk driving even if they are intoxicated in a vehicle.
As things change over time, lawmakers pass new laws. It’s likely that the laws will change to address self-driving vehicles more directly. It may become impossible to drink and drive in a self-driving vehicle. On the other hand, lawmakers may always require a sober occupant.
Self-Driving Technology, Insurance Rates and Vehicle Prices
Will self-driving technology increase or decrease insurance rates and vehicle prices?
Driver error is a significant cause of traffic accidents. (NHTSA, The Relative Frequency of Unsafe Driving Acts in Serious Traffic Crashes). A driver may not always correctly perceive their environment. When they correctly perceive their environment, they may not always make the correct choice in response.
Driverless technology may improve traffic safety in that it may reduce the amount of human error leading to crashes. While the technology is capable of malfunctioning, and in turn causing harm, it may also prevent accidents. If so, vehicle insurance rates may decrease, if there are fewer car crashes and less potential liability.
However, NPR reported almost 400 crashes involving automated vehicles in an 11-month period. If driverless technology increases the number or severity of crashes, insurance rates may increase.
Manufacturer liability and vehicle prices
Self-driving technology and related lawsuits may impact vehicle pricing. If subsequent legislation and case law shifts liability to vehicle manufacturers, surely it will be reflected in higher pricing.
On the other hand, if the overall impact of the technology is a reduction in crashes, extended vehicle longevity may decrease demand for vehicle purchases. With so many factors impacting pricing and sales, these influences may be challenging to quantify.
Ancillary Issues and Questions
Self-driving vehicles – other litigation
It’s important to note that personal injury lawsuits are not the only litigation expected surrounding self-driving technology. The technology used in these vehicles are trade secrets and vitally important to the commercial and competitive success of the companies who possess it. There has already been litigation about allegedly stolen trade secrets between companies, as they each scramble to protect their business interests and position themselves competitively in the consumer market.
Even vehicle drivers are pursuing litigation. Tesla drivers are pursuing a class-action lawsuit, claiming the company misled them about the status of self-driving technology. The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco federal court.
Advocating for Self-Driving Car Accident Victims
Lawyers must navigate emerging technology and a changing litigative landscape as they advocate for their clients. In addition to understanding the technology and meeting evidentiary requirements, they must be prepared to argue for interpretation and extension of the law to address emerging issues.
Quality legal representation must be cognizant of these challenges and able to identify the questions presented as part of the legal strategy for an individual client.
Lawyers for Claims Involving Self-Driving Cars
Thank you for following along with our discussion of driverless technology and its legal future. At David Aylor Law Offices, we are committed to addressing the legal needs of accident victims including cases involving self-driving cars and driverless technologies.
If you have been in a car accident, we want to advocate for you. Whatever the circumstances, we will fight for your rights and best interests. Contact us today to talk about your case.