Defenses to Self-Driving Cars & How to Overcome Them in Philadelphia

Once self-driving vehicles become normal on the roads in Philadelphia, it will just be a matter of time before car accidents with them become more commonplace as well. Unfortunately, personal injury law in Pennsylvania is going to have to evolve quickly to stay on top of the new issues that are likely to arise once those crashes begin to happen and innocent victims get hurt.

That is not to say that it is impossible to guess how the companies behind self-driving vehicles will react to a lawsuit for compensation after one of their cars hurts someone. In fact, there are numerous defenses that they are likely to raise to protect their bottom line from the costs of compensating someone they have hurt.

The personal injury lawyers at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian already have the answers to those defenses.

1. There is No Precedent for Self-Driving Cars

The first line of defense that self-driving car manufacturers are likely to try is that there is no precedent for car accidents involving self-driving cars. This argument implies that because autonomous vehicles are a novel mode of transportation, self-driving car companies should not be held liable for the costs of the crashes that their vehicles create.

Needless to say, the argument is flawed.

Between a completely innocent victim and a wrongdoer, even a negligent wrongdoer, the victim should be compensated for their losses by the negligent party. Just because the victim was using a new technology does not mean that this mantra of personal injury law changes.

Additionally, numerous new technologies have hit the market over the past hundred years that did not create this “grace period” where their creators could not be held accountable for the injuries they caused with their new products. Car accidents began happening mere days after cars first hit the roads, and negligent parties were made to compensate the victims they hurt. In that way, there really is precedent for determining liability from a crash involving a self-driving car; you just have to look for it in other places.

Finally, it would be absurd for a lack of precedent to make a successful defense argument. If it did, no precedent would ever be achieved.

2. There is No Case Law for Autonomous Vehicle Crashes

Similar to the first argument, defense lawyers for self-driving car companies are likely to claim that there is no case law to use to determine who is liable for an autonomous vehicle crash. Therefore, it would be impossible to find rules for determining liability and would be unfair to create them.

For reasons similar to the “no precedent” defense argument, this one does not hold either. Just because the law is not yet settled does not mean it should not be settled now.

It also fails to account for the fact that other similar strains of personal injury law exist, and that the cases in those fields can be used as guidelines for an autonomous vehicle crash. For example, while there might not be any examples of self-driving car accident cases, there are plenty of products liability cases that involve a device not working the way it was supposed to work and an innocent victim getting seriously hurt as a result.

3. There Was No Defect in the Vehicle

Autonomous vehicle crashes are inevitably going to turn into questions of product liability. The whole point of self-driving vehicles is that they can drive on their own. If they end up crashing, then something probably went wrong with the car.

However, defense lawyers are bound to maintain that everything went according to plan in the vehicle. The accident was just that – an accident – and the self-driving car company should not be held accountable.

In products liability cases, this basic line of defense can be a strong one. It forces the victim and plaintiff to uphold their burden of proof and show that something did, in fact, go wrong with the self-driving car. It is likely to be especially strong when it comes to autonomous vehicle crashes because the complexity of how self-driving cars operate is going to make it even more difficult for victims to show where the defect occurred.

However, delving into the technical details of autonomous vehicles is not unlike delving into how some other complicated device works. A self-driving car can be just another example of a defective product that does not do what it is supposed to do and isolating the defect is just a part of the lawsuit.

4. The Accident Was Outside the Scope of the Car's Autonomous Features

Self-driving cars are supposed to detect and avoid specific dangers on the road. When an accident happens because of a hazard that the vehicle was not designed to prevent or even comprehend, it can be a strong defense argument to claim that the car manufacturer should not be held liable, so long as they were upfront about the limits of their technology.

Currently, this defense is a relatively strong one because there are no fully autonomous vehicles on the roads. Instead, there are lots of vehicles that use autonomous features--like autopilot mode or a self-parking feature--that only operate on a limited scale. When there is a danger beyond the scope of these features and that danger leads to the crash, then the autonomous driving feature did not technically fail and its maker does not deserve to be held liable.

However, the entire goal of self-driving vehicles is that they drive themselves. This requires the car to detect and avoid all dangers on the road that a human driver could avoid. Once vehicles progress from partially autonomous to fully autonomous, this defense becomes much weaker.

5. The Passenger Was At Fault

It seems likely that autonomous vehicles will be equipped with manual override systems that allow the passengers inside to take control of the vehicle. Doing so would turn the autonomous vehicle into a regular one, which would come with the attendant responsibility to avoid a crash and drive safely.

If a passenger took the wheel and caused a crash, you can bet that the defense lawyer for the self-driving car company would try to pin liability for the crash on the new driver. In these cases, it would turn a complicated autonomous vehicle crash case into a regular car accident lawsuit.

A wrinkle in the case, though, is the fact that it is the self-driving car company that would have gathered the data that indicates whether a passenger took control of the vehicle, or not. It is not outside the realm of possibility for self-driving car companies to “mistakenly” detect a passenger overriding the car's operations when a crash was imminent.

6. Liability Waivers

You can count on self-driving car companies – particularly companies that offer autonomous vehicles for ride-sharing services – to try to use liability waivers to defend against lawsuits. By getting customers to sign away their right to sue for their injuries sustained in a crash, or by aggressively curtailing their legal rights after an accident, companies could try insulating themselves from as much liability as possible.

This defense strategy, however, might be overcome by the public policy exception to liability waivers. The law does not permit waivers to dodge absolutely any type of liability. There are limits and one of those limits is if the waiver would seriously hurt or undermine public interest. If autonomous vehicles are as revolutionary as everyone says they are and they become as widespread as self-driving car companies predict, then forcing riders to waive their legal rights in the event of a crash could be prohibited under the public policy exception.

7. The Accident Would Have Happened, Anyway

Finally, defense lawyers for self-driving car companies can claim that the accident would have happened, no matter what the autonomous vehicle did.

However, these vehicles are supposed to be able to detect dangers that human drivers could not. An inability to avoid an accident insinuates that the vehicle failed to detect the danger quickly enough. In a way, this defense only admits that the self-driving car failed to notice a road hazard and avoid a predictable crash.

Philadelphia's Personal Injury Lawyers at Gilman & Bedigian

While self-driving cars are not in the mainstream, yet, the personal injury lawyers at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian are preparing for what seems to be an inevitable future where they are a fundamental part of our lives. When that day comes and self-driving cars are a popular transportation option, one part of that future will be recovering compensation for victims of autonomous vehicle crashes. One part of recovering that compensation will be overcoming the defense arguments that the car's manufacturer and operators will use to try to dodge liability for the crash.

The personal injury lawyers at Gilman & Bedigian will be ready for when the time comes to represent victims of self-driving car accidents in court. Contact them online for the legal help you need to recover the compensation you deserve.

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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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