Self-Driving Car Accidents – Who is Liable?

After decades of futurist speculation, the era of self-driving cars entering the mainstream appears to be finally upon us. Self-driving cars – also referred to as autonomous cars or robotic cars – have been developed by several large companies, including Tesla and Google, over recent years, and regulators and legislators are considering the implications of what they will mean for highway safety and liability.

In May 2016, the first known fatality involving a self-driving car occurred when a Tesla Model S electric car collided with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer in Florida while the Tesla was in Autopilot mode, causing the death of the Tesla’s driver when the Tesla failed to brake at an intersection. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into the incident. Incidents like these bring up the question of who is liable in accidents involving self-driving cars.

Legislation of Self-Driving Cars

For the most part, state and federal legislation has yet to catch up with the development of self-driving cars. In some ways, defining what exactly is and is not a self-driving car is not quite clear as automobile makers have incorporated self-driving elements such as cruise control and automatic brakes into cars for years.

There are not specific prohibitions against self-driving cars in most states (and those states do not address self-driving cars at all), meaning such cars are presumably legal, although several states have acted to introduce legislation to regulate self-driving cars. Nevada acted in 2011 to make it clear that self-driving cars are legal, and six other states including California and Florida have enacted legislation to create rules for autonomous driving.

To sum up, at this point self-driving cars appear to be legal across the country, although regulations limiting their use may be coming.

Determining Liability in a Self-Driving Car Accident

Which brings us back to our initial question: if self-driving cars are legal, then who is liable when an accident occurs? The state and federal courts have not weighed in on these issues yet, and by all measures self-driving cars do seem to be safer than regular cars, with only a handful of documented cases where a self-driving car has caused the accident, so it may take some time for the courts to build up a history of jurisprudence regarding self-driving cars.

Thus, at this point, it would seem that the courts will likely apply the same type of legal principles in determining liability in self-driving car accident cases as they do in other cases. Namely, this means applying state negligence, no-fault insurance, and product liability laws to determine whether a defendant is liable.

In New York, an injured party would look to insurance for the first $50,000 of economic damages, but can sue the other party if he or she suffered a serious injury and/or the damages were over $50,000. To recover, the injured party must show that the defendant driver acted negligently. A showing of negligence could be made in a self-driving car accident if it was unreasonable for the driver to operate the self-driving car under the circumstances.

Finally, the makers of the self-driving car could be liable to all injured parties if the injuries were caused by a manufacturing or design defect in the car itself.

Recovery is Available For Those Injured in Auto Accidents

If you have been involved in an automobile accident in New York, automobile accident attorney Justin Brandel can help you obtain the recovery you deserve under New York law. Contact The Law Offices of Justin D. Brandel to set up a free consultation.

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