Soon, self-driving cars are likely to become common sights on the nation’s roads. Indeed, the world’s first self-driving car accident occurred on February 29, 2016. Normally it is possible to file a claim against the at-fault driver in a car accident. Legal ambiguities are bound to arise, however, when the car itself is its own driver. Nevertheless, this state of affairs does not nullify your right to fair compensation.
To the mind of a personal injury lawyer, product liability is the most obvious legal theory to rely on when a self-driving car malfunctions and causes an accident. As it is currently constituted, product liability law allows a victim to sue anyone in the chain of distribution of the car (including the manufacturer and the dealer) if it can be shown to be “unreasonably dangerous” due to a manufacturing, design or warning defect.
As a victim, you can win a product liability lawsuit without even proving that defendant was at fault – you can win a lawsuit against an automobile dealer over a manufacturing defect, for example, even though the dealer did not manufacture the car. The problem with product liability lawsuits is that they typically require the resolution of complex technological problems that in turn require extensive investigation and expert witness testimony.
Self-driving cars will, in most cases, require a human driver to sit in the driver’s seat, ready to take over in case of an emergency. If, for example, a basketball rolls out into the street, it would probably be too much to expect a self-driving car to “realize” that a child may soon follow to retrieve the ball. Likewise, a self-driving car is unlikely to be capable of making an ethical decision on whether it would be better to run over the child or risk injury to the passengers by stopping suddenly. For this reason, under most circumstances human drivers are likely to be required in self-driving cars for a long time to come.
This reality raises the possibility that the victim of an accident caused by a self-driving car could still sue the human manning the driver’s seat, if for no other reason than for failing to “take over” the car when the emergency that caused the accident arose. Moreover, if the human defendant was texting or engaging in some other unnecessary distraction at the time of the accident, the victim could argue that the defendant could have reacted in time to avoid the accident if he had not been distracted.
It generally takes the law several years to catch up to advances in technology (copyright law, for example, is still adjusting to the realities of the Internet). Expect personal injury law in this area to evolve rapidly in this area over the next decade or so.