As more autonomous vehicles hit the road and inevitably cause crashes, courts will have to contend with a complex web of responsibility when ruling on wrongful death cases.
An article from the law firm Pittman, Dutton, Hellums, Bradley & Mann, which specializes in wrongful death and car accident lawsuits, poses the question, "is [a traffic fatality] still wrongful death if the car is driving itself?"
So far, "self-driving cars cause more accidents (9.1 accidents per million miles driven) than vehicles involving a human driver (4.1 accidents per million miles driven)." And "[w]hen self-driving cars designed to reduce road carnage start to cause fatal accidents, concerns are raised regarding their safety and the issues of liability. Determining liability can be a sizable challenge, especially when you consider that many individuals and entities could play a role in an accident: the driver, car maker, technology provider, government, and local authorities."
The article goes on to define wrongful death from a legal perspective and explain how wrongful death lawsuits occur. When it comes to self-driving cars, the targets of lawsuits can include drivers, government, technology providers, and vehicle manufacturers.
In a widely publicized Arizona case, when an Uber vehicle using AV struck and killed a pedestrian, the courts and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) placed the blame on several parties. "While it’s clear that a fatality caused by a wrongful act should be considered a wrongful death, the challenge comes about when we attempt to determine who is liable. For those who want precedents regarding liability, it’s unfortunate that big companies like Uber have resorted to out-of-court settlements. Consequently, there is limited guidance from court rulings regarding the issue." It remains to be seen how future lawsuits will play out and whether tech providers and manufacturers will take more responsibility for fatalities caused by their vehicles.
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