Even though self-driving cars are far from common on the roads – few people can even say they have encountered one in Baltimore – it seems like just a matter of time before they are the transportation method of choice in the area. Once autonomous vehicles are logging significant miles on the roads of Maryland, though, it will just be a matter of time before something goes wrong, a car accident happens, and an innocent person gets seriously hurt.
When this happens, you can count on autonomous vehicle companies – everyone from the car maker to the companies responsible for the computer programs that run the vehicle to the parties that maintain and operate the cars – to vigorously fight against a claim that they should be held accountable.
Overcoming those defenses is something that the personal injury lawyers at the Baltimore law office of Gilman & Bedigian are already preparing to do.
1. There is No Case Law for Crashes Involving Self-Driving Cars
The first line of defense that autonomous vehicle companies are likely to raise after the initial wave of self-driving car crashes is that there are no cases on the books in Maryland that deal with the question of self-driving cars. Defense lawyers are going to claim that this somehow absolves self-driving car companies from liability for their role in the crash and the injuries that resulted as if the lack of cases directly on point somehow prevents autonomous vehicle companies from complying with the law.
Obviously, this defense argument is flawed.
Not only would this mean that novel ways of doing things would be above the law at first but, stretched to its logical conclusion, this argument would mean that a lack of cases on the law books would be a successful defense to a personal injury claim, which would prevent any case law from accumulating at all.
Additionally, lack of cases has never been an effective defense, in the past. When presented with a novel idea like self-driving cars, the legal system looks to cases that are similar, rather than those that involve absolutely identical facts. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, there are plenty of cases involving products that were designed to do one thing but did not work out as planned and caused someone to get hurt. Products liability law is full of those cases, and each one of them can provide some guidance for the legal field after a self-driving car crash.
2. No Precedent for Autonomous Vehicles
Similarly, defense lawyers are likely to say that there is a lack of precedent for car accidents that involve self-driving vehicles. This defense argument insinuates that autonomous vehicle creators should not be held liable for a crash that they might have caused because they had no way of knowing how they could avoid responsibility or act in ways that would escape liability for an accident.
This defense argument fails for many of the same reasons that the last one did. Additionally, the claim that there should be a “grace period” where self-driving car companies cannot be held liable for crashes because it is obvious that the autonomous vehicles venture is a risky one that carries a huge possibility of being held liable for someone else's injuries. Claiming that there was no way of knowing that an autonomous vehicle maker could be made to compensate an innocent victim is an empty argument.
3. Liability Waivers for Passengers
Liability waivers are probably the most common way for companies to escape the costs of an accident. By getting customers to sign an agreement that strips them of their right to sue for compensation in exchange for using a product, many companies try to insulate themselves from serious and very foreseeable legal action. It is completely predictable that self-driving car companies – particularly those that provide autonomous vehicles for ride-sharing – are going to try using liability waivers to avoid the foreseeable costs of a crash.
These waivers, however, are not all-powerful; there is a limit to the rights that they can take away from an injured party. For example, liability waivers cannot absolve a company for intentional or even grossly negligent conduct. Additionally, when liability waivers violate the public interest, courts in Maryland can refuse to uphold them. Both of these exceptions can be strong arguments against autonomous vehicle companies that try using liability waivers to escape paying for the costs of an accident caused by one of their vehicles.
4. The Car's Features Worked
An interesting defense claim that is likely to be made at some point is that the self-driving car operated perfectly. The crash just happened because of a hazard or danger that was beyond the purview of the vehicle's features.
Currently, this is a strong argument for vehicles that have self-driving features but are not entirely autonomous. Cars equipped with “autopilot” modes or even cruise control or self-parking features can encounter road hazards that these features are not designed to handle. An obvious example would be a car with an engaged cruise control that caused a crash because it did not turn. Claiming that the vehicle was responsible for the crash (rather than the driver) would encounter a strong defense argument that the cruise control feature was powerless to avoid the crash because it does not alter how the car can steer.
In the future, though, this defense argument will weaken as the abilities of self-driving cars become more and more encapsulating. Completely autonomous vehicles that are designed to detect and appropriately react to all road hazards will not be able to benefit from this defense at all.
Of course, a key component of this defense will depend on the marketing surrounding autonomous vehicles. Companies that claim that their vehicles are completely self-driving are preventing themselves from avoiding liability with this defense. It is foreseeable, then, that self-driving car companies will claim that their cars are completely autonomous and that passengers have nothing to worry about – while stopping short of assuring passengers that the car can avoid all crashes.
5. The Vehicle Was Not Defective
Perhaps the most common defense will be a simple denial that the self-driving car was defective at the time of the crash. Putting the burden of proving that the self-driving car was defective onto the plaintiff can be wise for a defense lawyer to do because of how difficult it can be to show that something went wrong with the inner workings of the vehicle. This task can become even more difficult if self-driving car companies try to protect the computer programs that operate their vehicles by labeling them as trade secrets.
However, skilled products liability attorneys are familiar with the process of delving into the inner workings of an incredibly complicated device to piece together what should have happened and compare it to what actually happened.
6. The Passenger Was Responsible for the Crash
The state of Maryland is one of the few states in the U.S. that still uses the doctrine of contributory negligence, which prevents a victim from recovering any compensation if they were somehow responsible for their injuries. Even if they were only 1% at fault, Maryland's law prevents them from recovering anything.
Self-driving car defense lawyers, then, are guaranteed to try to pin a tiny bit of blame on the passenger in the vehicle in an attempt to trigger Maryland's rule of contributory negligence and avoid paying for the costs of the crash. The precise circumstances of the crash are going to determine how effective this defense will be.
On the one hand, if a passenger in an autonomous vehicle takes control of the car and overrides the self-driving features, this defense might be a strong one. On the other hand, short of that situation, it will be a stretch to show that the passenger was responsible in any way for a crash. Even if the passenger, for example, is returning from a trip to the grocery store and brought too many bags of groceries with them into the vehicle, claiming that the extra cargo contributed to the crash is to say that the self-driving vehicle was unable to account for the extra weight in the car.
Gilman & Bedigian: Personal Injury Lawyers in Baltimore
Once self-driving cars become popular and crashes involving autonomous vehicles begin happening on a regular basis, these defenses are likely to be raised numerous times by the high-powered law firms that get hired to protect autonomous vehicle companies from liabilities associated with a car crash. Overcoming these defenses is going to be an essential part of recovering the compensation that victims of those crashes need, and deserve.
The personal injury lawyers at the Baltimore law office of Gilman & Bedigian understand this and are already preparing for these legal defenses, even though there are still years to go before we see self-driving cars dominating the roads of Maryland. Contact them online if you have been hurt and want to explore your legal options.