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Who Would be Liable in Crashes Involving Self-Driving Vehicles?

Self-driving cars may well be the future of automotive travel in the U.S. – and it may happen sooner rather than later. Some cars like Tesla already have an advanced form of cruise control, but the truth is it’s a rudimentary form of a self-driving car.  Google is working on another far more advanced self-driving car system it could sell to other car makers, one that would be fully autonomous, and other self-driving technologies are being tested.

But no matter how soon these vehicles get on the road, the legal system may need some time to catch up. For instance, what happens when (not if) one of these fully autonomous vehicles crashes and is deemed at-fault? If there is no human behind the wheel, who is liable in a Boston car accident lawsuit? Even if a human is behind the wheel, could he or she still be responsible?

Boston Distracted Driving AccidentsIn the case of a self-driving vehicle for hire such as a taxi, there is no human driver and the only humans in the vehicle are sitting in the rear with no access to the controls. In such a case, who would be to blame? The manufacturer of the technology? The owner of the vehicle? The person sitting in the driver’s seat?

There are all valid questions that will need to be ironed out as these technologies are unveiled. 

Determining Liability in a Boston Car Accident

As our Boston car accident attorneys know, there are several ways to determine who is at-fault in a car accident. On the one hand, we could use what is known as a strict liability approach. Here, violation of a traffic ordinance is evidence of negligence.  Under Massachusetts law, as held in Falvey v. Hamelburg, violation of a traffic law is not a per se proof of negligence. This is consistent with subsequent holdings from the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), which is our state’s supreme court. However, there is no absolute bar on using traffic violations to support a theory of negligence, and it can serve as powerful evidence.

Per Se Negligence in Boston Car Accidents

The nuance in proving negligence by violation of a traffic ordinance is it must be established this ordinance which was allegedly violated was created to prevent the type of harm which actually occurred in the case at bar. For example, there is a law law in the motor vehicle statutes which dictates all cars registered in Massachusetts must have number plates (license plates) properly displayed in a visible manner on the front and rear of the vehicle. There is no question failing to do would be a violation of Massachusetts traffic laws. However, if a car did not have a license plate on the rear of the vehicle, and instead had a plate sitting in the rear window, while an officer could likely issue a moving violation for this, a plaintiff could not use this is a per se proof of negligence if the driver sideswiped a pedestrian.

This is because the number plate statute was not created to prevent accidents, it was created so vehicles and possibly their owners, could be easily identified in the event of any number of situations.  This doesn’t mean plaintiff would not have a valid claim for negligence, and there may be any number of other statutes which do come into play, but the number plate violation would not be used as a proof of negligence.

In the case of a self-driving car, if the vehicle violated traffic laws resulting in the crash, it could likely be used as evidence of negligence against the vehicle owner.  This is however a novel issues, and courts would likely have to hear a real case and form opinions on this which would then likely be appealed.

Another way to prove liability would be to prove negligence under a theory of products liability against the manufacturer of the self-driving car, or the self-driving system in the case where there are different manufacturers. While this is certainly a possibility, and it helps a great deal if you speak with an experienced products liability lawyer who also handles car accident lawsuits in Boston, this case would likely involve the need for expert witnesses and could become a much more complex legal matter. The best solution may simply be for your Boston car accident to negotiate a reasonable settlement with the insurance company for the company that owns the self-driving car.

Recent Example of Self-Driving Car Fatality

According to a recent news article from The Drive, a startup company has suspended its self-driving car pilot program in Boston following a fatal accident involving a self-driving car in Arizona.  This was done in response to a request from the City of Boston to halt the program until safety issues could be reviewed and addressed if necessary.  In that accident, a pedestrian was allegedly killed by a self-driving car.

Authorities have said a female victim was crossing the road outside of the marked crosswalk along side of her bike.  The problem was while the car was designed to recognize pedestrians in crosswalks, it was not designed to stop or otherwise take evasive action for a person who allegedly chose to walk in the middle of the street.  If this had a been a human driver who was behind the wheel, it is not always an easy question as to who was at-fault.  Both the car (programming?) and the victim might be deemed negligent, but that would not be a complete bar from recovery for the plaintiff.

Under Massachusetts law, we operate under what is known as a comparative negligence system whereby the jury would assess if either plaintiff or defendant was negligent, and if both are negligent, look at just how negligent each party was. If defendant was more negligent than plaintiff, plaintiff could still recover, but her total recovery would be reduced by a percentage equivalent to her percentage of negligence in connection with the accident.

If you are injured in an accident in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

NuTonomy Suspends Boston Self-Driving Car Pilot After Fatal Uber Crash, March 21, 2018, By Stephen Edelstein, The Drive

February 7, 2018, CBS Boston Local

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Filing a Boston Truck Accident Lawsuit, Sept. 28, 2017, Boston Car Accident Lawyer Blog