Blog

Self-Driving Cars: Who is Responsible When They Crash?

Photo of Brian Humphrey

We have heard a lot lately about the coming age of the "self driving car." With Google, Tesla, and Uber fielding autonomous cars, and traditional automakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Infiniti not far behind, there has been a lot of concern over whether self-driving cars are safe. With the first self-driving cars have come the first self-driving car crashes, and now we are faced with the question: who is legally responsible when a self-driving car crashes?

As citizens, we quite reasonably expect that if a driver causes a car wreck that injures us or damages property, the driver is responsible for making it right. The law fulfills that expectation: if you can prove in court that the driver caused the wreck through a failure to use ordinary care or through a violation of a traffic law, the court will hold the driver (and through him, his auto insurer) liable for your damages.

But what happens if the car is being driven by a computer instead of a person? Machines have no legal responsibilities, and the court cannot hold the car itself liable for an accident. The court can only hold people and businesses liable.

Many commenters say that liability for accidents caused by self-driving cars will be born by the manufacturers under products liability principles. A 2014 paper by the Brookings institution suggests that products liability law is already adequate to address liabilities. However, there are a number of reasons that products liability law should not be the whole story:

First, under any products liability theory, a plaintiff would have to prove that the car or its software was unreasonably dangerous, was defective due to the negligence of the manufacturer, or breached a warranty. That would normally require expensive expert testimony, which is not normally required in a car-wreck case involving human drivers.

If we are injured when a self-driving car makes the same kind of mistake that would subject a human driver to liability, most of us would not expect to have to take the deposition of a computer programmer in Munich to see if he was negligent, or hire an expert to analyze computer code for defects. We would reasonably expect that the person who chose to give over control of his car to a computer probably ought to be held responsible when the computer causes a wreck.

This may already be the case in some jurisdictions. For example, the District of Columbia requires that any autonomous vehicle have a human driver "prepared to take control of the autonomous vehicle at any moment." If the driver must be prepared to take control of the vehicle, the driver would surely be responsible for failing to prevent the car from causing a wreck. Until we have cars that have no pedals or steering wheels at all, someone in a self-driving car probably ought to be held responsible for ensuring that the car is operating safely.

A court-developed doctrine similar to the "non-delegable duty" doctrine may be the answer. In many circumstances, a person or business owes a duty that he or it cannot pass off onto another. For example, a property owner cannot relieve himself of the duty to keep his premises reasonably safe simply by hiring a property manager-he is liable for injuries if the property manager fails to carry that duty out. A driver normally owes the public a duty to operate his vehicle in a reasonable and prudent manner, and should not be able to relieve himself of that duty by "delegating" it to a computer.

Ultimately, these issues will probably be addressed by state legislatures, particularly when there are more reports of self-driving cars causing accidents. Some may adopt "no fault insurance" schemes such as those in place in many states already. Others may adopt statutes requiring a human operator, as D.C. does, and holding the operator responsible for the car's safe operation. Ultimately, whether it comes from the courts or the legislature, the law ought to meet the reasonable expectations of the public when assigning liability, and that probably does not mean relieving owners or drivers of responsibility for wrecks caused by self-driving cars.

If you or someone you know has been injured in a car wreck, contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz by calling 713-222-7211 or toll free at 1-800-870-9584.

No Comments

Leave a comment
Comment Information

Awards & Recognition

  • 2016-2017 Equal Access to Justice Champion

    The Equal Access to Justice Champions Program was started by the Houston Bar Association in 2006, to help ensure placement of Houston Volunteer Lawyers cases with pro bono volunteers. Originally, firms were tiered according to size, and firms within each tier committed to accept a certain number of pro bono cases from HVL each year for five years.

  • The National Trial Lawyers | Top 100 Trial Lawyers

    The National Trial Lawyers: Top 100 is an invitation-only organization composed of the premier trial lawyers from each state or region who meet stringent qualifications as civil plaintiff and/or criminal defense trial lawyers. Selection is based on a thorough multi-phase objective and uniformly applied process which includes peer nominations combined with third-party research.

  • Million Dollar Advocates Forum

    Established in 1993, the Million Dollar Advocates Forum (which includes the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum) is one of the most prestigious groups of trial lawyers in the United States. Membership is limited to attorneys who have won million and multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements. There are over 4000 members throughout the country. Fewer than 1% of U.S. lawyers are members.

  • Recognized by Best Lawyers America | Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz | 2017

    Recognition by Best Lawyers is based entirely on peer review. Their methodology is designed to capture, as accurately as possible, the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area.

  • Lead Counsel Rated

    In order to earn the Lead Counsel Rating, an attorney must not only demonstrate significant legal experience, but must also receive multiple peer recommendations advocating his or her ability. This is a key component in the screening process.

  • Texas Super Lawyers | Texas Monthly

    Each year, Super Lawyers recognizes the top lawyers in Texas via a patented multiphase selection process involving peer nomination, independent research and peer evaluation. The Texas lawyers who receive the highest point totals during this selection process are further recognized in Texas Super Lawyers Top Lists.

Get Your Free Case Review 713.587.9668

Let Us Help You Today! Request a Free Consultation

Bold labels are required.

Contact Information
disclaimer.

The use of the Internet or this form for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form.

close

Privacy Policy

  • $50+ Million Personal Injury Fire and Explosion

    The firm successfully represented nearly 100 victims who suffered personal injuries and damages to property from a large fire and explosion resulting in a settlement of more than $50 million. The firm served as lead lawyers on the steering committee in this litigation.

  • $80 Million Personal Injury Large Plant Explosion

    The firm successfully represented 270 plaintiffs', taking a lead role in the plaintiffs' steering committee, who suffered injuries in a large plant explosion resulting in a settlement of nearly $80 million.

  • $50+ Million Personal Injury Plant Fire and Explosion

    The firm successfully represented 45 personal injury victims in a plant fire and explosion, serving on the plaintiffs' steering committee, concluding with a settlement of more than $50 million.

  • $22+ Million Personal Injury Work Site Accident

    The firm prevailed in a personal injury trial for a worksite injury client with the jury returning a verdict and resulting in a judgment of over $22 million for the firm's client.

  • $12 Million Auto Accident 18-Wheeler Collision

    The firm successfully achieved a $12 million settlement for the family of a man who died in an 18 wheeler collision.

  • $30 Million Personal Injury Burn Victims

    The firm prevailed on behalf of three burn victims with settlements totaling nearly $30 million.

Our Record Of Success.

When you are hurt and you choose a law firm to represent you in court or at the negotiation table, you need to carefully consider the firm's record.

More Success Stories