Part IX: The Past, Present and Future

A Quickly Approaching and Unclear Future

The world is a very different place than it was when we wrote the first edition of Accidents Happen. There are things in the world now that simply didn’t exist then. Just as the record industry had to adapt their legal philosophy when streaming music services got started, there are plenty of new technologies that will change the face of personal injury law in the future.

Self-Driving Cars As Defendants

It sounds utterly absurd, but this is now a reality. Recently, one of Google’s experimental self-driving cars struck a city bus in Mountain View, CA. While this wasn’t the first accident involving a self-driving car, it was the first time the car was found to be at fault.

Yes, the car was at fault.

Because of the way the software recognized road hazards, the car moved to the left in order to avoid sandbags that were in front of a storm drain. This caused it to hit an approaching city bus. It was determined the car was at fault for not yielding to the bus. While thankfully there were no injuries, what if there had been? Who would be held liable?

It’s a question with no clear answer at the moment. These self-driving cars are essentially robots, which of course are not people. So if the robot car is at fault and someone is hurt, can a robot be held liable? If not the robot, would you hold the company that made the car’s software? It’s not like they could have planned ahead for that specific situation, since the car navigates on a series of decision-making algorithms and not pre-loaded scenarios. What about the person in the car? Should they have taken over the controls? What if the car malfunctioned?

Nobody as an answer for what to do about these self-driving cars in case of injury accidents. Ultimately, Google will most certainly have responsibility, but lots needs to still be developed in this new area of the law.

Are Uber Drivers Employees?

Uber is an interesting beast. The ride-sharing service allows people to use their own cars almost like a taxi service. Except that it is very much not a taxi service, since the cars are not owned or operated by Uber and are private vehicles. The drivers simply give rides to people in their car and are compensated for their time.

So what happens when that goes wrong?

In 2014, a Los Angeles woman accused an Uber driver of “abducting” her. After picking her up, the driver took her 20 miles out of the way, ignoring her as she told him this was the wrong route, finally stopping in an empty parking lot and locking the doors. As the woman shouted for help, the driver eventually drove her home, ending the two hour ordeal.

A case in the California courts about a year later established Uber drivers as actual “employees” after a former Uber driver sued for job-related expenses. This classification is not nationwide, however. Other states have ruled differently, and some haven’t had to rule at all yet.

This is going to begin coming into question more and more as the ride share service becomes more widespread and common. As convenient as Uber and other similar services are, who is liable when things go wrong? Do we have to just hope the driver carries insurance? Should Uber be providing insurance? If the driver is providing their own insurance, should the insurance policy treat passengers like any other passengers or correct for them as “customers”?

These questions are all up in the air right now, as the growing pains of the industry begin to iron themselves out. Many lawyers are keeping a close eye on these cases to see how they play out.

Complicating the matter is the issue of drivers with a checkered past. How thoroughly is Uber required to check the backgrounds of its drivers? Since they’re a type of independent contractor, is Uber liable if they miss something? Even if the driver’s record is clean, what if they commit a crime while on the job? As an independent contractor, does the blame lie solely on the driver?

Drone Flights On Public And Private Property

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” have come out of nowhere and are becoming a huge legal issue.

Of course, there’s the “invasion of privacy” question that comes with any remote controlled vehicle that carries a camera. This is a question as old as the invention of binoculars. Yet, the drone question is deeper than that.

In 2015, a fire broke out on the 15 Freeway near the El Cajon Pass, north of Fontana, CA. Cars were stopped on the freeway as multiple vehicles burned right there on the road, including a boat trailer and a car carrier. As fire crews attempted to put the fire out, their efforts were hindered by private drones that were in the area as locals tried to film the fire.

These drones made it almost impossible for the fire crews to bring helicopters into the area to drop water and fire retardants on the burning vehicles. Since, at the time, the FAA hadn’t required registration for drones, nobody knew who the pilots were.

Should these drone pilots be held liable for keeping firefighters from doing their jobs? Should they have to pay for the damage to cars that were burned? What if there were injuries? What about certification? Should some sort of training and certification be required before someone can fly a drone? If an unlicensed drone pilot causes property damage or personal injury, how does that change the case? If they’re licensed and operate the drone in an unsafe manner, would this mean they’re especially negligent?

As the law evolves and changes, more of these questions will need to be asked. It won’t be easy, and like any other process of change, there will be bumps in the road. However, it’s worth noting that we’ve come through changes and questions in the past to get to where we are now. It’s not too much to imagine that we’ll figure it out from here as well.