Death of Pedestrian Raises Questions About Self-Driving Cars

The death of a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ last month has raised concern nationwide about the speed with which states have opened themselves up to autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are a relatively new technology, but 32 of the 50 States have either passed legislation to allow testing of autonomous vehicles on its roads, or governors have issued executive orders authorizing such testing.

This death is the first involving an autonomous vehicle. Autonomous vehicles have been involved in other accidents throughout the roughly 10 years that the technology has been tested, but the majority of those accidents were small fender-benders that were the fault of the human driver, not the artificial intelligence driver.

Not only does the death raise questions about the accelerated pace of acceptance nationwide for autonomous vehicles, it also raises interesting questions about criminal charges and civil liability. If an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident, can the owner of the vehicle be cited for failure to reduce speed, even if they had no control over the vehicle? Can the owner be sued for negligence or personal injury if they were not in control at the time of the accident giving rise to the harm? These types of questions are novel but will have to be answered. Insurance companies will want to know the extent of their liability, and drivers will want to know just how serious an offense they can be charged with.

To some degree, Arizona, which had been the “Wild West” of autonomous testing, has taken steps to address part of the equation, by allowing the backup human driver of any autonomous vehicle to be cited by police in the event of a traffic violation or accident. However, questions about liability for personal injury remain.

Most personal injury claims are based on the legal concept of negligence, which requires a showing that an individual had a duty of care, that they breached that duty of care, that the breach was the cause of the injury, and that the injured party actually suffered some sort of harm. In a personal injury case involving an autonomous vehicle, how would a plaintiff go about proving that a defendant breached his or her duty of care if they had no control over the vehicle at the time? Each state will have to adjust their laws to take these technological advances into account, and as a society, we will have to decide what we expect from autonomous vehicles and just how high we want to set the bar for injured plaintiffs.

Cade Parian is a personal injury attorney with The Parian Law Firm in Birmingham, GA. The National Trial Lawyers honored Cade as a “Top 40 Under 40” lawyer in 2014. He can be found on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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