Negligence Liability in the Age of Automated Cars

From Knight Rider to Back to the Future, the world has long wished for flying, time traveling and self-driving cars.  While these technological feats have been limited, for now, to Hollywood films, one of these technological visions may soon transition from a work of science fiction, to reality.  Manufacturers such as Google, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla have already incorporated automated components into their vehicle fleets and are working to develop fully automated (“self-driving”) motor vehicles.  In 2015, Tesla Motors Inc. activated its Autopilot mode, which allows autonomous steering, braking and lane switching.  (“Self-Driving Cars and Insurance” Insurance Information Institute July 2016. Web.)

These manufacturers tout the benefits of automated vehicle features by highlighting the reduction of accidents caused by driver behavior, such as distracted driving, to the reduction in insurance premiums by the decrease in vehicle accidents.  However, a May 7, 2015 automobile accident in Williston, Florida calls into question the accuracy of claims of increased driver safety by the use of self-driving vehicle options.  The preliminary investigation of the May 7th crash indicated that the crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of a Tesla, and the car failed to apply the brakes.  (Vlasic, Bill and Neal E. Boudette “Self-Driving Tesla Was Involved in Fatal Crash, U.S. Says” New York Times June 30, 2016).  Investigative reports noted that neither the vehicle’s autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brakes were not applied in the incident.  Id.  This accident and similar accidents involving automated vehicle features highlight the new question posed to vehicle manufacturers, legislatures and insurers, i.e. who will bear the brunt of negligence liability for accidents that cause personal injuries if a self-driving car is involved in the accident?

In Georgia to have a viable negligence action, a plaintiff must demonstrate the existence of a duty on the part of the defendant, a breach of that duty, causation of the alleged injury, and damages resulting from the alleged breach of the duty.  Elder v. Hayes, 337 Ga. App. 826, 828–29, 788 S.E.2d 915 (2016).  While the accident in Elder v. Hayes did not involve an automated vehicle, the defendant was able to obtain summary judgment on the causation element of the plaintiffs’ negligence claims.  In reversing the denial of summary judgment, the appellate court held that in the absence of clear evidence indicating which of the collisions caused, or was more likely to have caused, the injuries to the plaintiffs, if the circumstantial evidence only created a mere conjecture as to how the injuries occurred, there can be no recovery.  Elder, 337 Ga. App. at 833.

Thus, self-driving cars may add a new player to the blame game of the parties that caused or contributed to an accident, the bad driver versus the faulty equipment.   A defendant is entitled to include on a verdict form for apportionment of fault all individuals for whom there is some evidence of having contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries, not only those that have physical contact with the plaintiff.  Six Flags Over Georgia II, L.P. v. Martin, 335 Ga. App. 350, 365, 780 S.E.2d 796 (2015).  As such, automated control options may create another avenue for product liability and negligence claims against vehicle manufacturers.  Many insurers are already beginning to add inquiries regarding available automated vehicle features to the underwriting process of automobile insurance policies.

In the May 7th vehicle accident, neither the automated controls nor the driver applied the vehicle’s brakes when the tractor trailer pulled into the Tesla’s path of travel.  The manufacturer may argue that the driver had ultimate responsibility for control of the vehicle on the public roadway.  However, it is a well-established principle of Georgia law that if a defendant “is confronted with a sudden emergency without sufficient time to determine with certainty the best course to pursue, he is not held to the same accuracy of judgment as would be required of him if he had time for deliberation, and the existence of the emergency can be considered by the jury in deciding whether the defendant exercised ordinary care.” Smith v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co.., 337 Ga. App. 604, 608–09, 788 S.E.2d 508 (2016).  The decision of whether to first apply brakes, disengage automated features or trust the advertised self-stopping features upon a moment’s notice adds additional factors for consideration by manufactures, insurers, and juries in the assessment of causation and breach of duty for negligence actions involving automated vehicles.

Dawn Pettigrew