Liability Law and the Autonomous Vehicle

by William Mattar | May 31st, 2017

A paper from the Brookings Institute provides a discussion of how products liability law will impact autonomous vehicles. The paper was published in mid-2014, almost three years ago, but resonates today in the wake of the first motor vehicle accident where an autonomous vehicle was found to be at fault.
The crux of the paper is that while “liability concerns raised by vehicle automation are legitimate and important” those concerns “can be addressed without delaying consumer access to the many benefits that autonomous vehicles provide.”

The paper serves as an excellent springboard for understanding who—or what—can be held responsible for a motor vehicle accident caused by an errant self-driving car. Running through virtually every potential theory of liability against a car manufacturer—from tort claims of negligence, strict liability, or manufacturing and design defects to claims sounding in breach of contract—the paper concludes that “[a]utonomous vehicles will complicate the already complicated entanglements between insurance providers, plaintiffs, drivers/owners named as defendants, and manufacturers.”

The authors provide the following example:
Consider a driver . . . who gets in an accident attributable, he or she believes, to a manufacturing defect. If the driver is sued by someone injured in the accident, in some states the driver’s insurer will then have the driver “implead” (bring in as a party to the lawsuit) the manufacturer. In other states, the insurer will wait until the case concludes, pay out any resulting claims, and then initiate a separate action against the manufacturer.

In essence, according to the paper, “[u]ntangling fault for accidents will sometimes involve complex questions of liability shared by both the human driver and autonomous vehicle technology providers.”

In the face of this changing dynamic, the paper proposes several “guiding principles” that can be used to frame discussions in Congress, and state legislatures, when enacting new laws for the rollout.
First, the authors argue that there is no need for lawmakers to “preemptively resolv[e] liability issues” before the public can get access to new autonomous vehicle technologies. Instead, according to the paper, “there are good reasons to let the courts address such questions, “when and as they arise.”
Second, the authors claim that “courts have generally proven quite capable of addressing [novel products liability questions]” and products liability law has proven to be “remarkably adaptive” to new technologies through the decades, and there is no need to overhaul the “dynamic field[] of law.” In other words, the authors claim that a robust body of products liability law has evolved through the years, and “there is no reason to expect that the legal system will be unable to address the products liability issues that arise with respect to autonomous vehicles.”

Third, among other proposals, the authors claim that Congress should refrain from preempting state tort remedies with respect to autonomous vehicle liability. For some commentators, federal legislation that occupies the field of tort liability—long the province of the states—would be a major overstep. The paper argues in cogent terms against a 2009 RAND Report that “Congress could consider creating a comprehensive regulatory regime to govern the use of these technologies.”

While it is certainly true that state court remedies are sometimes inconsistent, it does not follow that the solution is for the federal government to strip state courts of their authority.

Stay tuned as our blog explores this Brooking Institute paper in greater detail.