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Who Is Responsible for an Accident with a Self-Driving Car?

In March 2018, a woman died after being struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. At the time of the accident, the woman was walking her bike across a dark but otherwise empty road. Though the car’s computer system recognized the woman in the road six seconds before the collision, the car did not apply its own brakes or alert the “safety backup driver” to her presence. The backup driver, who was streaming “The Voice” on her phone at the time of the accident, wasn’t looking at the road and didn’t spot the woman.

Who was at fault in this accident? Uber? The backup driver? The victim, who crossed in the middle of the road? It could be argued that each party failed to take actions that may have made for a less dangerous situation.

Determining who is responsible for a car accident is a crucial legal matter with implications for both criminal and civil cases. If a person is hurt or killed in an accident, a distracted, drunk or otherwise negligent driver can face serious penalties ranging from license suspension to years’ worth of jail time. Many states hold the negligent party and their insurance company liable for damages resulting from the accident, including an injured person’s medical bills, auto repair costs, lost income, and pain and suffering. This is true whether the at-fault entity is a distracted driver or an auto manufacturer that installed a defective product in its cars.

Legal scholar Bryant Walker Smith, whose research focuses on risk and trust in new technologies such as automated driving systems, has argued that auto manufacturers are responsible when their self-driving cars cause harm. However, if the AV START bill becomes law (it is pending legislation in the U.S. Senate as of this writing), it would protect manufacturers from civil lawsuits by requiring disputes to be settled in arbitration, a private process that occurs out of court.

Because Uber settled with the family of the woman killed by its self-driving vehicle, there was no court ruling where the liability of each party was evaluated. Furthermore, Tempe police have not filed criminal charges against the backup driver or against Uber. The result is that, as of now, there is no clear legal precedent assigning responsibility for an accident involving a self-driving car.

Self-driving vehicle liability is a new frontier that has yet to face a significant legal test.  The attorneys at Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban are well-versed in personal injury law as it pertains to auto accidents and manufacturer liability. If you are hurt by a self-driving vehicle or by a human driver, we can advise you on your rights and advocate for the compensation you deserve. Call us at (888) 351-1038 or contact us online to schedule a free initial consultation at one of our offices. We have locations in the Carolinas and Virginia.

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