Self-driving cars are being hailed as the future of transportation. By taking human error out of the picture, these cars – also called autonomous vehicles or robot cars – are expected to drastically improve traffic safety in South Carolina and across the country. However, as a recent fatal crash involving a self-driving test vehicle in Arizona shows, these cars likely won’t be able to prevent all auto accidents. When these crashes occur, the question will be, “Who is liable?”

Important Factor: The Self-driving Car’s Mode at the Time of Crash

If a self-driving car gets into an accident that injures or kills someone, a key question will be what mode the car was in at the time of impact. For instance, it would seem clear that human driver should be liable for any bodily injury or property damage that the driver causes if the car was under the driver’s control, and the driver’s negligence caused the crash.

However, if the car was not under the driver’s control at the time of the crash, the issue becomes more complex. Apparently, that appeared to be the case when an Uber self-driving test car hit and killed a pedestrian who was crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona on March 18. Reuters reports that the car was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash, while a human operator was behind the wheel. It is believed to be first-ever deadly collision involving an autonomous vehicle.

If you were the victim of such a crash or the family of a person killed by a self-driving car, would you be able to sue the auto manufacturer? Would you sue the company behind the self-driving technology used in the car? Would the driver still bear some responsibility? Could you bring claims against all of those parties? These are all important questions that come into play with driverless cars.

Law Professor Sees Trend Toward Product Liability Claims

As a recent Washington Post article discusses, it appears that the shift would be towards bringing product liability claims against the auto manufacturers and technology developers rather than traditional personal injury claims against at-fault drivers. In fact, a University of South Carolina law professor, Bryant Walker Smith, has become one of the country’s leading legal scholars on this subject, the Post reports.

According to Smith, those product liability claims could be challenging. The main issue would be whether an automated driving system performed “unreasonably” and, in turn, caused the crash. This means that an injury victim or surviving family members would need to show:

  • A human driver would have done better than the automated system, or
  • Another actual or theoretical automated system would have done better.

As you can see, such claims would require an experienced product liability attorney. The attorney would need to know how to gather all relevant evidence from the crash scene and from the companies involved in the self-driving car and its technology. The attorney also would need to marshal input from knowledgeable experts in areas such as auto engineering and technology.

Self-Driving Car Accident Liability Remains Unanswered Question

For now, at least, driverless car liability remains a matter of theory. Fortune notes that, to date, every accident involving a self-driving car in the U.S. has been resolved through an out-of-court settlement. That includes the recent fatal accident in Arizona, according to Reuters. Automakers and technology firms simply don’t want see a verdict go against them and open “a Pandora’s box of liability,” one law professor told Fortune.

Rest assured, our legal team at Joye Law Firm will continue to closely study self-driving car liability and prepare our firm to take on these legal battles of the future for our clients.

About the Author

Mark Joye is the Head of the Litigation Department at the Joye Law Firm. A Board-Certified Trial Advocate with nearly 30 years of litigation experience, he currently serves on the Board of Governors for the American Association for Justice and is a past president of the South Carolina Association for Justice. In a recent trial, Joye headed a trial team that secured $17 million for a family killed in a tractor-trailer accident.

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