How Will New Technology Affect Personal Injury Law?
While technology is supposed to make our lives easier, we also have to face a hard truth: new technology comes with new risks. That’s a lesson Silicon Valley companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber are learning the hard way.
Since hitting the road in 2009, Google’s self-driving cars (code name: Waymo) have logged 2 million miles on the odometer. Uber has also launched a self-driving car fleet, with autonomous Ubers on the road in Pittsburgh, Tempe, and Phoenix. Already, these cars have crashed head-first into interesting legal dilemmas.
Case in point: one of Uber’s self-driving cars recently crashed in Tempe, Arizona.
The accident occurred in late-March when an oncoming SUV turned left in front of an Uber vehicle, The Denver Post reported at the time. The two cars collided and the Uber Volvo rolled onto its side. Two test drivers were inside the Uber car, but there were no serious injuries. The driver of the SUV was ultimately ruled responsible for the crash.
Following the Arizona accident, Uber temporarily suspended the autonomous vehicle pilot program, only to reinstate it several days later. Luckily, no one was injured or killed in this crash, but with Silicon Valley putting more autonomous vehicles on the road, that grim possibility seems inevitable. And personal injury lawyers say that will have major implications for personal injury lawsuits and wrongful death claims.
While this recent news has been dominating headlines, self-driving cars aren’t the only technology that could change personal injury law in the 21st century. Drones, exploding e-cigarettes, hoverboards, and other modern inventions are also raising interesting legal questions.
Brave New World: Will New Technology Cause a Personal Injury Epidemic?Many Silicon Valley leaders believe that self-driving cars will soon become the norm, and they predict a future where no one dies in car accidents. While car-loving Americans might not be weaned off motor vehicles that easily, self-driving cars are becoming more common. They operate through a system of sensors and cameras that identify objects in their surroundings.
Despite this futuristic setup, they do carry risks. Despite promises that self-driving cars are safer, they are actually more likely to crash. A 2015 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that self-driving cars are five times more likely to crash than regular cars, and passengers are four times as likely to be injured in these accidents. The researchers estimated that self-driving cars are involved in 9.1 crashes per million miles, while regular cars are involved in 1.9 crashes per million miles.
Drones have also been a controversial newsmaker recently, raising the question of whether technology is developing too quickly for public safety. Drones are being used by photographers and videographers, as well as delivery companies like Amazon. A 2016 report revealed that drone sales tripled in 2015, building a $200 million industry. But one key question stands: How risky are these products?
Drones, which were originally developed as military weapons, pose some particularly intense risks. In 2015, a drone crash landed on the White House grounds. And in 2013, during a bull run at the Virginia Motorsports Park, four spectators were injured when a drone crashed into the crowd.
Two women also came face-to-face with this question at a New Hampshire wedding last year…literally. According to a Boston Magazine report, a drone being used to capture a wedding video tumbled out of the air and landed on the heads of several guests. The women filed a personal injury lawsuit in early December, saying “they suffered physical and emotional injury.”
While many media outlets made light of the wedding drone lawsuit, not every drone incident is a laughing matter. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration drew up sweeping regulations in June 2016, which limited drones to low-level flights within sight of the operator. There’s a disturbing reason for these strict rules: in 2016 the FAA received about 159 reports per month of drones flying too close to manned aircraft.
Adding to the ongoing list of risky tech, hoverboards became one of the most popular holiday gifts of 2015 and have been burning up the tech manufacturing scene ever since. But due to low quality, defective batteries, there have been numerous accounts of these two-wheeled toys catching on fire.
Once such incident turned fatal in March 2017, when two children died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in a house fire caused by a hoverboard. The tragedy was the first death of this type in the United States.
What Are Tech Companies Doing To Prevent Injury?
Besides saving lives and preventing injury, technology companies have a powerful motivation to stop injuries before they occur. If faulty self-driving car technology leads to injuries — and thus personal injury lawsuits — the technology will become so expensive it never sees the light of day.
In the wake of these accidents, there have been several efforts by both technology companies and government organizations to take preventative measures. For example, Google patented a human flypaper to attach to their self-driving cars. This way, if the car happens to hit a pedestrian, the person will stick to the front of the car.
Organizations and research groups are also testing drones under controlled circumstances. One such government-approved test center is located at Virginia Tech. Researchers there are crashing drones of various sizes and weights into test dummies, then analyzing the impact.
“What we need to understand, really, is at what level does injury become death?” Mark Blanks, director of the test center, said in a statement to Bloomberg. “When does the threshold cross an unacceptable level?”
A federal agency was also involved in handling the fire-prone hoverboard controversy. In July 2016, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 500,000 hoverboards, citing $2 million in property damage. Unfortunately, many faulty hoverboards had already been sold.
Some Personal Injury Lawyers Believe That Injury Claims Will Actually Decrease
Let’s go back to self driving cars. Some personal injury attorneys are arguing that this technology could actually mean far fewer injury lawsuits, as it will reduce opportunity for human error. New York personal injury attorney Eric Turkewitz even said he’s looking forward to the day that self-driving cars put car accident lawyers like him out of business for good:
“With human error crashes reduced by software that automatically stops or slows the car, the number of broken bodies and cars will be reduced. The number of deaths will be reduced. Your insurance premiums will be (theoretically) reduced. And that means the need for my services as a personal injury attorney will be reduced.”
However, many personal injury lawyers are pointing to the unknown risks. And then there’s the big question…
Who Will Be Held Accountable When Someone Is Injured By A Piece Of Technology?
Let’s keep looking at autonomous vehicles as an example. If someone is injured by a self-driving car, who is legally responsible? The car’s owner? The manufacturer? The car company? The software engineers?
If someone is injured by a commercial truck driver, both the driver and the trucking company could potentially be liable, and many personal injury attorneys say the same principle will apply to autonomous cars. Usually, car companies aren’t liable if a driver is injured in a crash, but these rules are changing fast. Increasingly, auto companies are also technology companies, and if their technology fails, they could be liable for damages.
To attempt to solve this dilemma, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote a letter to Google. In the letter they declared that in self-driving car accidents the autonomous vehicle is the driver, not the person.
“We agree with Google,” the letter reads. “Its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years. If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the “driver” as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.”
Many experts think that if the car is actually the “driver,” then car accidents suddenly become a product liability issue, according an interpretation published in Business Insider. This would mean that the car manufacturers would take on more responsibility than the human operator. That could lead to much, much higher costs for car manufacturers, at least in the short term.
These experts are also looking at how insurance companies could rewrite policies as driverless cars hit the road in increasing numbers, redefining the definition of a “driver” altogether. Despite the NHTSA’s letter to Google, many states are considering restrictions on autonomous vehicle operations. California legislators have a bill on the table saying that driverless vehicles must have a licensed driver behind an actual steering wheel.
Restrictions like this are also controversial, with many people pointing to the new opportunities that self-driving cars could offer people with disabilities. Without the mechanical demands of traditional driving, autonomous vehicles allow blind people, elderly people, and people with mobility issues to get around independently.
As driverless cars continue to be tested, companies, organizations, and governments will need to carefully draw up new rules of the road. There’s just one problem…
Technology Changes Fast; the Law Doesn’t
If this legal conversation sounds too hypothetical, it’s not. The first confirmed death caused by an autonomous vehicle happened in May 2016. The operator was in a Tesla Model S when the car’s “Auto Pilot” failed to detect a white tractor-trailer against the bright sky.
We depend on technology for almost everything, and that dependence poses certain risks. It will soon be impossible to avoid these ethical and legal battles, especially as technology evolves. Personal injury attorneys are preparing for the potential legal implications, and state and federal courts will have to as well.
That’s because accidents involving technology such as drones, hoverboards, and driverless cars are already happening, even if regulations and policies are stuck in the 20th century.
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