On March 18, 2018, Elaine Herzberg was struck by a car while walking across the street in Tempe, Arizona. This car turned out to be an autonomous, or self-driving, Uber.
Uber, an application that connects drivers and riders, has recently begun to use self-driving vehicles to replace human drivers.
Uber released the news that they would begin to use autonomous cars in February 2015. In December 2016, Uber began testing their autonomous cars in Tempe, Arizona. In March 2017, Uber suspended its autonomous fleet in order to investigate the crash involving Herzberg.
Two videos were released by police of the accident
In sum, the autonomous Uber, a Volvo SUV, failed to slow down and stop when Herzberg entered its path and crossed the road with her bike. One video, taken from the outside of the car, showed a dark and relatively empty street.
This video then shows the Uber colliding with Herzberg, who walked directly in the car’s path.
The second video, taken from the interior of the car, showed the operator of the car occasionally looking at the road but also looking down at times.
At the time that the car struck the pedestrian, the driver appeared to be looking at something in the car and not at the road. The operator of the car also appears to be shocked when the driver strikes the pedestrian.
Operators in Uber’s autonomous cars are titled “safety drivers.”
These safety drivers are there to take control of the car when intervention is needed. However, the majority of the time, the car runs mainly in an autonomous mode.
This autonomous mode relies on radar sensors to detect any obstacles. In this specific accident, Herzberg appears in the car’s view a second or so before the collision.
Who should be liable for this accident is unclear. Some have argued that Uber should be criminally liable because their autonomous car was negligent and Herzberg’s death was a result of that negligence.
This accident has spurred an in-depth discussion on who should be liable when an autonomous car is involved in an accident.
A brief understanding of tort law will enable one to better analyze this issue
A tort is a legal term that can be defined as an act or omission that causes injury or harm to another, resulting in liability.
There are three main types of torts:
- intentional torts,
- negligent torts, and
- strict liability torts.
In regards to autonomous cars, it is important to understand that a negligent tort is one where a person acted unreasonably unsafe, causing harm to another.
In addition, strict liability torts refer to situations that are inherently dangerous and make the defendant liable if it can be proven that the tort occurred and that the defendant was responsible for the injury or harm.
In addition, when considering tort law that may apply to this case, a brief understanding of product liability is also required. When someone is injured by a product, the courts will look to whether there was an issue with the product that was the cause of the accident in question.
This is legally known as a design defect. A design defect is a problem with the way a product was designed that makes that product inherently dangerous. Design defects are inherent, as the problem with the design existed before the product was manufactured.
In 47 states, a plaintiff must prove that a design defect existed. In the three other states, Alaska, California, and Hawaii, a defendant must justify the product’s design and show that there was no design defect.
It is arguable as to who is legally liable for this accident
Different parties that could possibly be held liable for an accident caused by Uber’s autonomous car include Uber, Volvo, the car manufacturer, the company that developed the software controlling the SUV, and the driver himself. Determining who is liable in these types of accidents will likely always be fact-dependent.
In most car accident litigation, the focus usually turns to whether a driver was acting negligently or did not exercise a reasonable level of care.
However, most car accident litigation is in regards to a physical human being who was in complete control of the car.
When considering autonomous cars, which are designed to be driven without a human being in control of the car, our legal liability analysis may shift.
Legal experts have argued that when an autonomous car is involved in an accident, the focus of a lawsuit should turn to whether the system made for the self-driving car had a design defect.
Again, in a design defect claim, a plaintiff must prove that a product had an inherent design defect. In regards to autonomous cars, this would likely lead to a plaintiff having to prove that there was a design defect in the software made for the autonomous car.
So, instead of the driver being legally liable for negligence, the manufacturer of the car and/or software would be liable under a product liability claim for a design defect.
This argument goes further when considering that product liability claims can also cover the principle of defective or dangerous products.
Strict Liability and Uber Accidents
If the product was found to be inherently dangerous due to a design defect, the offense would likely be considered a strict liability one.
A strict liability offense does not require a defendant to show that reasonable or great care was not shown, like a negligence claim.
Instead, when considering a strict liability offense, it is completely irrelevant whether the manufacturer exercised reasonable or great care.
Rather, if there was a design defect in the software that was the cause of the accident, the manufacturer would be liable.
There is a strong argument as to both the liability of the safety driver in the autonomous Uber and the software designer for the autonomous Volvo SUV.
Both would likely be argued in court, but considering tort law, the person most likely to be liable for an accident involving autonomous cars is the software designer as the software is, and was in this case, designed to stop when pedestrians and obstacles obstruct its path.
The autonomous Uber failing to stop when Herzberg entered its pathway seems to be a defect in the autonomous car’s software and its ability to detect obstructions.
If you have been injured as a passenger in an Uber, Lyft, or other ride-sharing service accident, contact Rice, Murtha & Psoras to discuss your options.