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
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
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
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.