Are Self-Driving Cars Fatal to the Personal Injury Law Firm?

Are Self-Driving Cars Fatal to the Personal Injury Law Firm?

Autonomous vehicles have captivated the auto industry for several years. Every major car manufacturer has some project in the works, from Google’s Waymo to Apple’s super-secret “Project Titan,” autonomous vehicles and the proliferation of self-driving technology are looking increasingly inevitable as features of 21st Century life.

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of reducing collisions by substantially reducing the probability of human error. Surely this is a good thing. But, a reduction in collisions will not happen until the majority of vehicles on the road are self-driving.

That being said, there are other types of personal injury car accidents that surface in connection with this technology. Of course, everyone has experienced computer “ bugs” or “glitches” in the past. But what happens when a glitch causes the self-driving car to injure someone? Of course, that person deserves to be fully compensated for those injuries suffered, but who is this claim to be made against? Traditionally, we would hold the driver (and/or owner) of the vehicle responsible. Can we hold the owner of the vehicle responsible for failing to properly maintain the software? What about the company responsible for developing the software that malfunctioned and caused the crash? The intermediary who installed the updates? Whoever the proper defendants turn out to be, it is clear that this likely will be significantly more complicated than simply making a claim against the driver.

A related concern for the personal injury practitioner involves these puzzles outlined above. In a typical case, an injured party would make a claim under the policy of the driver of the vehicle that caused the accident. But where the “driver” is essentially an artificial intelligence application, it appears that the “defendant” is no longer a natural person. In fact, it may appear that most ordinary motor vehicle negligence suits could turn into product liability lawsuits. Rather than the straightforward claim process, claimants and litigants could face an intimidating wall of corporate lawyers and an army of experts. Litigation costs easily could go through the roof.

This means that “jurisdiction” and “venue” could become much more interesting and more thorny issues than contemporary practitioners are accustomed to. “Venue” is the location where a lawsuit may be properly brought. “Jurisdiction” in this context would refer to the bounds of the court’s authority. Typically, the jurisdiction in which a motor vehicle accident lawsuit may be brought is the state court in the county in which the accident occurred or where the defendant resides. In the case of a self-driving vehicle, will plaintiffs be required to sue manufacturers in their home state or perhaps in Federal court? 

While not fatal, these complications are sure to change dramatically the landscape of motor vehicle accident litigation in the near future. 

There is good reason to be optimistic, from a safety standpoint, about the future of self-driving vehicles. If they work as expected, we can expect to see marked drops in the number of motor vehicle collisions and therefore, a reduction in the number of motor vehicle related personal injuries. This would mean, in addition to the reduction in pain and suffering on the whole, billions of dollars in healthcare, car repairs, lost time from work, and insurance premiums could be saved.

Only time will tell if these innovations can improve our lives in ways that outweigh the costs and potential harms. Regardless, as technology inevitably reshapes our world, personal injury lawyers will have to adapt as well. A competent and experienced advocate may become even more important as these strides in technology are bound to complicate motor vehicle accident injury litigation.

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