Lawsuits Could Run Wild When an Autonomous Car Crashes

Photo credit: Volkswagen

From Road & Track

If we are to believe everything we see and hear in the news, self-driving cars are the wave of the future and there will come a time when we are all just passengers in cars that are better drivers than we could ever be. I'm skeptical. Not just because I remember all those promises of jet packs and flying cars, but because I'm a lawyer. And I can sense impending litigation the way a retired NFL lineman can sense a coming thunderstorm from the pain in his knees.

Much of the talk surrounding the future of self-driving cars focuses on infrastructure. Who will pay to build the modern roadways to best suit these wondercars? But what about the wave of lawsuits which will certainly greet the first self-drivers to crash? Let me illustrate this the way it would look on a law school exam.

I am driving a self-driving car. My name is Driver A. My car is built by Carmaker C. You are Driver B, in a self-driving Carmaker D. Our two cars collide at a lonely intersection in Anytown, USA. I am grievously injured. Sadly, you die. Hey, it's my fact pattern. I get to pick who lives and dies.

Before our self-driving overlords took over our cars, I would have simply sued your estate for causing my injuries. Not surprisingly, your estate would probably sue me for the negligence resulting in your wrongful death. Our two insurance companies would foot the bill for an epic legal battle that very well could be resolved by a jury. The lawsuit would simply be A versus B.

But what of the twist added by the two self-driving cars? First, I cannot be held liable for any harm here because I will blame any fault–which I vigorously deny–on the misdeeds of my self-driving car and on your self-driving car. I will not only have to sue your estate but I will add in the defendants Carmakers C and D. Why not? Sue 'em all and let the jury sort 'em out.

Your estate's representatives will take a similar angle. The lawsuit will look something like this. Driver A sues Driver B, Carmaker C, and Carmaker D. Driver B sues Driver A, and Carmakers C and D. And not wanting to be left out of the fun, Carmaker C and Carmaker D will sue each other. The case caption–the piece at the top that identifies the parties and who they are suing–will look more like a roadmap of New Jersey than a title. And, as any attorney will point out to you, litigants focus on the "deep pockets" in any equation. After all, your insurance company might have to only pay out whatever your policy limits are. The real pot of gold is the one the Carmakers are sitting on. Will their liability be limited in this wrongful death/grievous injury action?

It would take legislation to do that. And, unless its national legislation, we might end up with 50 different rules on this. And just to add to the confusion, don't forget that the self-driving cars won't have a monopoly on the roadways. There will be "dumb" cars on the roads for decades, being driven by the old-fashioned drivers who actually have to work the steering wheel and pedals. When one of them gets into a tangle with a self-driving car, who do you suppose they are going to blame? And don't underestimate the ability of a careless driver to blame the car for an accident. I can't count how many times I heard drivers claim their accidents were caused by anti-lock brakes.

I'm not saying that self-driving cars are all going to be in accidents. Maybe they will perfect the technology to the point where they really do eliminate accidents. But while there are humans out there–in any part of the equation–there are certainly going to be mishaps. Mishaps lead to injuries. Injuries lead to lawsuits. And lawsuits seek out the deep pockets. You see where this is going.

Let's just see if the car companies and the regulators can resolve the legal issues at the same pace they seem to be developing this wonderful new technology. Or, perhaps, we can just wait around for the self-driving flying cars. They can't be that far off and I'm sure they won't present any problems at all.

Steve Lehto is a writer and attorney from Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law. His most recent books include Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow, and Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird: Design, Development, Production and Competition. He also has a podcast where he talks about these things.

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