Does No Driver Mean No Liability?

July 14th, 2016 by Farhan Naqvi in Car Accidents

Federal regulators at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration are starting to ask questions about driverless vehicles, and the people who own them, after the second serious car crash in less than three months and as new details emerge about the first crash.

In July, a Tesla SUV that may have been in autopilot mode rolled over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike after ping-ponging into barriers on either side; the wreck occurred about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. State Police have refused to release details about the wreck, citing an ongoing investigation. The manufacturer, which says that it receives information from vehicles in these situations, insists that it had “no reason to believe that Autopilot had anything to do with this accident;” the Tesla’s driver, Albert Scaglione, declined comment after being released from the hospital and referred questions to his attorney.

In May, a Tesla sedan in autopilot mode smashed into a turning tractor-trailer after the computer apparently failed to distinguish the light-colored trailer from the overcast sky; Joshua Brown, the vehicle’s driver, was killed. Terence Mulligan, who said he was trailing the Tesla in another vehicle, stated that the Tesla continued operating at highway speed even after it passed under the trailer and its top was sheared off. “The top was gone. It went right by me,” he reported. In a follow-up telephone interview, Mr. Mulligan added that the Tesla continued down the highway at the same speed until it crashed into a utility pole after leaving the road and driving through two fences.

Although the manufacturer cautions owners that they should be prepared to take control of their vehicles while they are in autopilot mode, some owners have posted YouTube videos of themselves taking their hands off the steering wheel and even crawling into the back seat. Authorities recovered a DVD player and laptop computer from Mr. Brown’s wrecked car, though it is unclear whether or not he was operating them at the time of the crash.

Negligence and Driverless Cars

Most manufacturers estimate that autonomous vehicles will be widely available by 2020 or 2025, so courts must soon define “driving” as it applies to car crash cases. An analogy from another area of law may provide some guidance.

Section 484C.110 of the Nevada Revised Code, which is part of the DUI laws, states that it is unlawful “to drive or be in actual physical control of a vehicle” if the operator is either legally intoxicated or has a BAC above the legal limit. So, it is not unusual for drivers to be convicted of DUI even if they are idling on the street, waiting in front of a house with the ignition off, or even if they are asleep in their non-running vehicles that are parked at the curb.

If drivers can be found guilty of DUI because they are in physical control of a vehicle, even though they are not “driving” in the everyday sense of the word, tortfeasors (negligent drivers) can arguably be held liable for damages under similar situations. Procedurally, if the tortfeasor feels that a mechanical defect is at least partially responsible for the crash, the tortfeasor can sue the manufacturer under the state’s comparative fault law.

Reach Out to a Feisty Lawyer

There is an old saying in the law that “for every wrong, there is a remedy,” and this principle applies to driverless cars, their owners, and crash victims. For a free consultation with an aggressive personal injury attorney in Las Vegas, contact Naqvi Injury Law. You have a limited amount of time to act.


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