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Who is liable for your injuries in a driverless car accident?

Under traditional tort theory, the operator of a vehicle is the primary person responsible for the accident (unless he can overcome the presumption by implicating another party, such as a negligent mechanic). Driverless cars challenge this fundamental aspect of American tort theory and leaves this crucial question, if you are hit who is liable? How do you recover for your injuries? Are you left in legal limbo? This post will go over the answers to those questions.


The Department of Transportation recently passed regulations that holds that the computer is the “operator” of the car. That means, even if there is a human operator in a driverless car, the computer is the nominal driver. But does that mean you sue the computer? Is that even possible? No, there is no basis in law for holding a computer responsible for its actions. But it is likely that the court will apply long-standing products liability laws to driverless cars.

Essentially, the manufacturer or designer of the computer would become liable for your injuries. In this scenario, multiple parties are liable for your injuries from the software designers, to the hardware manufacturer and even retailers. While this may sound like a boon to plaintiffs, it also imposes steep challenges. Products liability cases are far more difficult to prove than standard car accident negligence cases.

Thanks to Tesla’s autopilot and other “driver-assist” technologies, the law must also deal with partially-independent computer systems. In this scenario, the courts will likely hold the human driver and computer jointly liable for the accident. This result does not implicate you but it does have profound impacts for defendants. This essentially allows manufacturers to sue defendant-drivers for indemnification if they are found liable.

The laws dealing with driverless cars are still evolving. It is likely that the states and federal government won’t have decent answers until years after driverless cars are driven by the thousands. Until those laws are settled, you will likely want the assistance of an attorney if you in an accident, even if your insurance volunteers to sort through the issues. The complex nature of these accidents ensures that clever defendants can try to tie you up for months as the court sorts through these issues. A lawyer can help you avoid these pitfalls.


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