Liability and Legal Questions of Self-Driving Vehicles in Baltimore

The legal rules for liability issues after a car accident have been over a hundred years in the making. At this point, there is little that has not been considered and dealt with after a car crash.

All of that is set to change once self-driving cars hit the streets in Baltimore. With autonomous vehicles, many of the legal challenges that are present in a typical car accident become radically different. Suddenly, rules of negligence are not going to be useful for determining who was ultimately responsible for a crash and who should pay for its costs. Instead, much of the process of determining liability will center on hyper-technical questions of product liability.

Because it is all but inevitable for self-driving cars to revolutionize transportation in Baltimore in the near future, the personal injury lawyers at the Baltimore law office of Gilman & Bedigian have explored many of the legal questions associated with liability and self-driving vehicles in the area.

The Old Way of Resolving Car Accidents in Baltimore: Negligence

Personal injury law in Maryland has developed numerous rules for determining who should be held responsible for accidental injuries – the vast majority of which are suffered in car accidents. The central question of those rules involves determining liability between a negligent person and a completely innocent victim.

To do this, personal injury law in Maryland has developed rules such as:

  • Contributory negligence, for when both drivers were partially at fault for the crash.
  • Negligence per se, for when one driver was violating a rule of the road and that caused the accident.
  • The reasonably prudent person, for establishing the standard of conduct that an allegedly negligent person should have been following.

Resolving Car Accidents Involving Self-Driving Vehicles: Products Liability

Those old rules of negligence, though, are going to be largely inapplicable to car crashes that were caused by autonomous vehicles because there will not be a driver controlling the vehicle who can be negligent. No longer are car accidents going to be caused predominantly by human error: instead, accidents are going to be the result of complicated sensors going wrong or computer programs failing.

As a result, injured victims – victims who are absolutely blameless for their injuries because they played no part in acquiring them – face a complicated legal battle to recover the compensation that they need and deserve. Instead of having to show that the other driver was negligent and caused the crash, victims will have to delve into the technical processes that run and control autonomous vehicles and prove that something went wrong.

These lawsuits are going to revolve around the rules of products liability, rather than negligence. They are going to have to show that the feature of the self-driving car that failed was designed, manufactured, or marketed in a way that put consumers at risk, or that the self-driving vehicle was maintained in a way that increased the odds of an accident.

Increased Difficulties in Determining Liability

The move from the law of negligence to the law of products liability will come with a much more complicated process of determining and proving liability – one that involves a much more intense factual investigation.

When humans drive cars and crash, it is often easy to see what went wrong. Even the most complicated, multi-vehicle accidents can be understood by reconstructing the accident using ascertainable facts like:

  • The types of vehicles involved
  • Damage on the impacted vehicles and other objects
  • The presence of tire marks on the road
  • Location of debris from the accident
  • Testimony and other first-hand accounts from drivers, passengers, and other eyewitnesses

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, though, this is only the beginning. No longer is it enough to point to one driver and declare them negligent and at fault for the crash – the investigation has to find what component of the autonomous vehicle failed or was responsible for a driving decision that put people at risk.

When vehicles have human drivers, it is enough to decide which driver made the mistake that led to the crash. With autonomous vehicles, the investigation has to go one level further and determine why that mistake was made, essentially reading the minds of the self-driving vehicle to see what went wrong.

Numerous Defendants Who Could Potentially Be Liable

The reason it is so important to go further than determining whether an autonomous vehicle was responsible for the crash and why the autonomous vehicle was responsible is that there are so many people and companies behind the operation of self-driving cars. When the crash was caused by one of the car's features, like the steering mechanism, it would be unfair to hold a company liable when they are only responsible for something completely different on the car, like the GPS device.

Unfortunately, there can easily be up to a dozen different companies and people behind each autonomous vehicle that could potentially be held responsible and liable for a crash. Proving that it was a particular someone who was liable can be incredibly difficult, especially when the evidence involves delving into incredibly complicated and technical computer programs that are protected by the companies as trade secrets.

One Possible Solution: Enterprise Liability

Thankfully, the personal injury law in Baltimore already recognizes a legal rule that allows plaintiffs to recover compensation when it is nearly impossible to prove which the defendant was ultimately responsible for their injuries. So long as the plaintiff has brought all of the possibly liable defendants into the lawsuit, they can recover compensation from the defendants, as a whole, though the concept of enterprise liability. Once the plaintiff has been compensated, it would be up to the defendants who satisfied the verdict to sue the other co-defendants to get them to contribute to the costs of the case.

One Legal Issue that Disappears: Contributory Negligence

While many of the legal issues that autonomous vehicle accidents present complicate the question of liability for the crash, there is one that becomes much simpler: Maryland's rules of contributory negligence, which resolves what happens when the victim is partially responsible for their injuries.

Maryland is one of the few states that uses the legal doctrine of contributory negligence, rather than the majority rule of comparative negligence. Most states use comparative negligence to compare the percentage of fault that falls on the victim for the accident, and then reduces the amount of the verdict that they can recover by that percentage. Maryland, however, asks whether the victim contributed to the crash, in any way. If the victim did – even if they were only 1% at fault for the accident and their injuries – they are completely barred from recovering anything.

Contributory negligence is an extremely harsh rule and often leaves almost completely innocent victims without compensation.

The rise of autonomous vehicles, however, would drastically reduce the power of contributory negligence because victims in self-driving car accidents are only rarely going to be at fault, at all. Only when they take control of the vehicle could they be found even partially responsible for a crash. As a result, contributory negligence would likely bar far fewer valid personal injury claims, allowing far more deserving victims to recover the compensation they need.

Upcoming Legislation

Because autonomous vehicles are going to wreak so much havoc on Maryland's personal injury and car accident laws, there is almost guaranteed to be legislation that deals with how self-driving cars are regulated and how lawsuits can proceed against them after a crash.

Unfortunately, Maryland has already fallen behind the curve on this front. While many other states have passed preliminary legislation – bills that create, fund, and empower advisory boards to investigate the problems associated with autonomous vehicles and propose regulations to keep everyone safe – Maryland's efforts to do so have both failed in the legislature.

Gilman & Bedigian: Baltimore's Personal Injury Lawyers

The personal injury lawyers at the Baltimore law office of Gilman & Bedigian know that self-driving and autonomous vehicles have not hit the roads of Maryland just yet. However, it is abundantly clear that it is only a matter of time before they revolutionize how people get from one place to another. When that does happen, crashes are inevitable, as well, and it is clear that personal injury law as we know it will struggle to answer many of the liability questions that arise.

That is why Gilman & Bedigian's personal injury lawyers are already looking at ways to ensure innocent victims in Baltimore can recover the compensation that they need and deserve if they are involved in a crash that involves an autonomous vehicle. Just because there was not another driver who was acting negligently does not mean you should have to pay for the costs of your recovery out of your own pocket. In fact, the promises that self-driving car makers have delivered, as well as the absolute control they have over your experience, should make them ultimately responsible for your injuries.

Contact us online for legal representation in the Baltimore area.

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If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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