Who is Liable When a Self-Driving Car Causes an Accident?

Injuries after a car accident

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the causes of a tragic fatality in California from 2016, where a Tesla rear-ended a firetruck while operating on autopilot.  According to reports from Bloomberg, this incident is still pending a possible investigation by NTSB, but it almost mirrors a more serious accident also involving a Tesla autopilot accident in Florida that same year.  In that crash, the driver was killed when the Tesla went underneath a semi-truck at 74 MPH. Given the risks, you’d think states would be wary of the technology. However, Florida does not require a special permit to operate these vehicles.

These recent accidents highlight a troubling trend with autonomous or driverless technology: What happens when a driverless vehicle or auto-piloted vehicle causes a crash? Who is responsible? How can victims be compensated for their injuries? All of these are evolving discussions that our experienced Florida auto accident lawyers must deal with when representing injured victims. So, to better understand this issue, let’s take a look at how Florida law treats liability.

Who Owes a Duty to Others – Automaker, Person Piloting Car, or Both?

Florida law is a so-called “no fault” state. This just means that all drivers are required to carry basic personal injury protection coverage. This insurance covers minor medical expenses and compensates drivers for their own injuries, regardless of who is at fault. Under FLA STAT 627.736, this coverage is just $10,000. As you can probably imagine, that won’t cover most serious injuries. Therefore, the law says that the responsible party must compensate the victim for injuries and losses, including medical expenses, hospital bills, lost wages from work, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, future expenses or lost ability to earn income, and so forth.

While it’s clear the at-fault driver is responsible and liable for the victim’s injuries, what happens if the other driver’s vehicle was driving itself? Indeed, autonomous driving accidents are a relatively new phenomenon that presents new challenges.  Still, there are some basic legal concepts that can give us guidance. To prove negligence (the theory you have to prove to be compensated), there are several things you have to be able to show:


Did the other driver owe a duty? In most cases, all drivers, even those operating on autopilot, owe a duty to keep a careful look out when driving. All drivers are responsible for their vehicles and what those vehicles do – even when it’s a self-driving car accident. Therefore, if a driver relies on his car’s technology, he is taking a gamble that the technology will not malfunction. This is really no different from relying on your brakes to work. If they don’t – whether due to a manufacturer’s defect or poor maintenance – you are responsible for the injury your car causes.

Breach of Duty

If your technology –brakes, auto-pilot, or anything else – fails, then you are liable to the others you hurt. You breached your duty to other people on the road.

Proximate Cause

If the driver’s breach directly caused an accident and hurt someone, then this is called proximate cause.

Indemnity and Contribution

If the owner and operator of the driverless vehicle had no control over the event, then it’s possible he or she would seek contribution from the auto manufacturer or the company that made the technology that ultimately caused the crash. This is called contribution. Of course, this will all depend on to what extent the owner and operator of the vehicle played a role in the accident or could have prevented it.

Under FLA STAT 768.31, there are a few limited situations where the manufacturer might be responsible for indemnifying the owner of a defective vehicle that causes harm to others. In a way, it just means the driver would be responsible, but if he or his insurance carrier was required to pay the victim, then he or his insurance carrier might be able to then file an action to recover that money from the manufacturer.

The more the driver had control over the vehicle, the more likely he and his insurance carrier will be responsible. However, if it can be proven that the technology failed to work as designed, then it’s possible the manufacturer will be held responsible. It will all depend on the specific facts of the case.

How Would a Lawyer Prove Who is Responsible?

This is always the hard part of any case – proving what happened. Usually both sides will tell a different story. So, it’s important to gather as much neutral evidence as possible. This means getting the following:

  • Official Crash Report
  • Police Accident Reconstruction Reports
  • Notes or Observations Fire and EMS
  • Photos or Videos
  • Security Cameras or Private Business Closed Circuit Recordings
  • Crash Data Recorders (often available on high-end auto-pilot vehicles)
  • Witness Statements

Once an attorney gathers all available evidence, he or she can begin to piece together the facts and prove your case. Ultimately, if the insurance company disagrees with the evidence and refuses to pay, you and your attorney may have to file suit against the other driver or the manufacturer (or both) in order to fight for compensation.

How are Tech Companies and Insurance Companies Reacting to the Approaching Reality that Self-Driving Cars will be on the road?

As the technology becomes more mainstream, we can expect insurance companies and manufacturers to push back against regulations and courts awarding compensation to victims. Consider the following response from Tesla, in reply to a class action suit involving its driverless technology.

In the response brief, Tesla makes a somewhat strained argument that it

Did not develop and implement computer algorithms that would eliminate the danger of full throttle acceleration into fixed objects even if it is caused by human error.”

The car company basically argues that no other car manufacturer has been able to do this, and neither has Tesla. In other words, Tesla argues that any expressed or implied warranty only extends to workmanship and quality – not a warranty that the vehicles will avoid all dangers.

So, while they market and advertise a vehicle that can avoid accidents and drive itself, they argue that buyers should know that the vehicle cannot avoid accidents and drive itself.

Finally, consider how the Insurance Information Institute is responding. According to a July 2016 article from the Institute, they succinctly state:

“As cars are become increasingly automated the onus might be on the manufacturer to prove it was not responsible for what happened in the event of a crash. The liability issue may evolve so that lawsuit concerns do not drive manufacturers and their suppliers out of business.”

Suffering a Personal Injury During Car Accident

If you are hurt in a car accident, whether it involves traditional vehicles or emerging driverless technology, you need experienced legal representation from a law firm that understands the rapidly changing face of high-tech auto accident law.

The experienced personal injury attorneys for Chiumento, Dwyer, Hertel, Grant, P.L. are available to take your call and answer your questions. We believe in holding those responsible accountable for their actions and fighting for the compensation that injured victims deserve. If your injuries were caused by another person’s negligence or due to a manufacturer’s defect, then your family should not have to suffer. Our firm will fight to protect your rights. Contact us to learn more.

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