Driverless Cruise Robotaxi Hits Pedestrian – Who’s Liable?

On October 2, a Cruise driverless “robotaxi” in San Francisco hit and seriously injured a pedestrian. This is one of the most severe accidents caused by an autonomous vehicle in California so far, and it shows that the technology still has a long way to go. 

The incident led to the suspension of Cruise’s operating permit by state authorities, citing safety concerns and allegations of Cruise misleading the DMV. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also investigating to determine the cause of the crash. 

While it is the first robotaxi injury in California, it will not be the last. The crash throws into sharp relief the importance of determining liability for autonomous car accidents. Let’s examine the current state of personal injury law for self-driving car accidents and what you should do if you’re hurt in a crash.

The Evolution of Personal Injury Claims and Liability for Driverless Accidents

While the Cruise accident has put that company on hold, driverless cars continue to gain traction nationwide. California has been at the forefront of permitting autonomous vehicles, which means that the state also has the most experience litigating related personal injury claims. Crucially, the courts have determined that there are some substantial differences between standard car accidents and those involving autonomous vehicles. 

In a normal crash, the most common ground for fault is that of negligence. When a human being is in charge of controlling the vehicle, they are also liable for any accidents they cause. 

That’s not the cause for autonomous vehicles. Instead, the company behind the driverless vehicle may be liable for damages under California’s product liability laws. The theory behind this is that if a self-driving car is responsible for causing the accident, it is the company’s fault for manufacturing a faulty product. 

Under California’s product liability laws, anyone who designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product is strictly liable for injuries caused by that product. In the case of driverless cars, companies may be held liable for accidents caused by manufacturing defects, design defects, or lack of proper warnings for expected use.

Of course, the determination of fault in an accident involving a driverless or partially autonomous vehicle depends on various factors, including whether the cars were violating traffic laws that caused the accident. For example, fault can lie with the operator of a partially autonomous vehicle, the human driver of a non-driverless car, the car manufacturers that produced or designed the driverless vehicle, or even a combination of the above.

Even if an individual shares some blame for causing the accident, they can still recover partial damages under California’s comparative fault laws. In cases where multiple parties are responsible, a jury can decide the percentage of blame shared by each party through California’s comparative fault laws.

The Future of Self-Driving Car Liability

The current state of liability law in California for driverless cars and accidents is still evolving. However, the locus of liability has started to shift toward the manufacturers and designers of autonomous vehicles. 

Legal experts like Robert Rabin at Stanford Law School are focusing on how the tort liability system will evolve to address autonomous vehicle accidents. The trend is moving towards more product liability claims and fewer negligence claims. This shift is due to the increasing role of technology in driverless vehicles, making it more challenging to determine what went wrong in accidents, especially when assessing reasonable alternative designs (RAD) in software systems.

Rabin co-authored a law review article proposing a new liability framework for when autonomous vehicles become the dominant mode of transport. The proposed framework suggests replacing the tort remedy with a no-fault system, similar to workers’ compensation. However, there is a long way to go before this becomes the standard. In the meantime, it appears that negligence, product liability, and comparative fault will remain the primary factors in determining who is at fault for a given crash. 

What to Do After a Self-Driving Car Accident

As with any car accident, you have the right to file a civil claim for damages after you’re injured by a self-driving vehicle. However, there are some unique issues you must consider due to the involvement of autonomous technology. Here’s a general outline of the process:

  1. Seek Medical Attention: Your first priority should be to get medical treatment for any injuries sustained. Documenting your injuries through medical records is crucial for your lawsuit.
  2. Report the Accident: Report the accident to the police immediately. A police report provides an official account of the incident, which can be important evidence in your case.
  3. Gather Evidence: Collect as much evidence as possible from the accident scene. This includes photographs of the location, the vehicles involved, and your injuries. If there were any witnesses, get their contact information.
  4. Document Everything: Keep a detailed record of all medical treatments, expenses related to the accident, lost wages if you were unable to work, and any other financial impacts.
  5. Consult a Personal Injury Attorney: It’s essential to consult with an attorney who has experience with accidents involving autonomous vehicles. These cases can be more complex due to the involvement of advanced technology and potentially multiple liable parties (e.g., the car manufacturer, software developers, etc.).
  6. Determine Liability: Your attorney will help determine liability, which can be more complicated in accidents involving driverless cars. Liability may rest with the manufacturer, the software developer, or other entities engaged in the car’s operation.
  7. Take Legal Action: Your attorney will file a lawsuit on your behalf. The case should detail the accident, your injuries, and the negligence of the responsible party/parties.

Accidents involving self-driving cars are going to keep increasing, and filing a claim with so many potentially liable parties can be complicated and time-consuming. It’s crucial to have legal representation to guide you through the process and ensure you have the best possible chance of success. At Fiore Achermann, our team of professional car accident lawyers can help you handle your claim. Schedule a consultation to discuss your accident and learn how we can help you pursue compensation for your injuries from the right parties.