Self-driving cars are here to stay. While Tesla has led the market over the past several years, all of the major manufacturers are now developing cars with self-driving capabilities. Regulators are working toward developing a framework that will support the introduction of fully-autonomous vehicles onto our nation’s highways in the not-too-distant future.
But, as has been widely publicized, today’s self-driving vehicles are still far from perfect. Additionally, while marketed as “self-driving,” they still require an attentive driver to be engaged behind the wheel at all times. So, when a self-driving car is involved in an accident, who is liable for the victims’ injuries?
Determining Liability in a Collision Involving a Self-Driving Car
When determining who is liable for a self-driving car accident, the first question is the same as it is in any other type of vehicle collision: Who are the parties that are potentially to blame? The answer to this question is generally the same as well—the parties that are typically liable for self-driving car accidents include:
- The driver of the “self-driving” vehicle
- The vehicle’s manufacturer
- The manufacturer of a defective vehicle component
- Any other company in the vehicle’s “chain of distribution”
- A third party such as a vehicle repair shop or road construction contractor
1. The Driver of the “Self-Driving” Vehicle
In today’s world, the fact that a self-driving vehicle was involved in an accident does not necessarily mean that the accident was the vehicle’s fault. Driving negligence is still a potential factor; as of 2018, humans remained the leading cause of self-driving car accidents. In fact, there is at least anecdotal support for the proposition that drivers are even more dangerous in self-driving cars. By placing too much reliance on their vehicles’ autonomous capabilities, drivers are taking extraordinary risks (such as reading, watching movies, and even sleeping behind the wheel) that they would not take in a non-autonomous vehicle. As of right now, the government still has not approved 100% reliance on vehicles’ autonomous capabilities.
2. The Vehicle’s Manufacturer
While most car accident claims against drivers are rooted in the law of negligence, claims against vehicle manufacturers are typically based on the law of products liability. Under Tennessee’s (and other states’) products liability laws, manufacturers can be held strictly liable for injuries and deaths resulting from vehicle defects. This means that proof of negligence is not required, although it is necessary to prove that (i) the vehicle was defective, and (ii) the defect was responsible for the crash.
In broad terms, a product is considered legally “defective” if it is unsafe for its intended use. With regard to self-driving vehicles, this would mean that the vehicle is unsafe to be operated on the public roads (with its autonomous driving features activated). If a driver is being safe and is still unable to avoid a collision, then this may suggest the existence of a vehicle defect—and the manufacturer may be 100% liable for the accident. If driver negligence and a vehicle defect both contribute to causing an accident (e.g., if the driver is not paying attention and the car does not detect another vehicle in its path), then the driver and the vehicle manufacturer may share legal responsibility for the collision.
3. The Manufacturer of a Defective Vehicle Component
In many cases, vehicle manufacturers buy components from other companies. For example, when you buy a car from any manufacturer, it has tires that were made by one of the well-known tire brands. The same is true with regard to in-car technology, including self-driving capabilities. If you were injured in an accident involving a self-driving vehicle that utilized technology from a third-party software company or hardware supplier, then you may have a claim against that company in addition to having a claim against the vehicle manufacturer.
4. Any Other Company in the Vehicle’s “Chain of Distribution”
Products liability laws establish liability for all companies involved in the “chain of distribution” of a defective vehicle. So, as the victim of a self-driving car accident, you may be able to seek compensation from the dealership, the vehicle manufacturer, the self-driving component manufacturer, and various other companies. Once you file a claim, it is up to these parties to decide where ultimate responsibility lies (these companies will generally have contracts in place that apportion liability to the responsible party), but you are entitled to compensation regardless of which company is directly to blame for the defect’s existence.
5. A Third Party Such as a Vehicle Repair Shop or Road Construction Contractor
Negligent vehicle repairs can cause and contribute to car accidents as well. Even if a vehicle does not suffer from a defect, faulty maintenance work can make it dangerous to drive. Whether an independent repair shop performed the work or the self-driving car’s owner took it back to the dealership, if a negligent repair is to blame, you deserve to be fully compensated for your accident-related losses.
The same is true if the accident resulted from poor road construction, negligent road repairs, or negligent maintenance work performed on your own vehicle. If any other party caused (or contributed to causing) the accident, the fact that a self-driving car was involved could be irrelevant to your claim for just compensation. Ultimately, the involvement of a self-driving car is just one factor to be considered. While a self-driving vehicle feature may have been to blame, it is entirely possible (and perhaps even more likely) that another factor was to blame as well. As with any other type of car accident, the key to establishing liability is to conduct a thorough investigation, and this means hiring an attorney as soon as possible.
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If you were injured in an accident involving a self-driving car in Clarksville, Springfield, or any of the surrounding areas in Tennessee, we encourage you to contact us promptly for a free initial consultation. To speak with an attorney about your case in confidence, call us at 931-647-1501 or tell us how to reach you online now.