Are Self-Driving Cars Unreasonably Dangerous Products?
ELI5: Negligence

Recently, a motorcyclist was fatally injured when a Tesla crashed into them. At the time of the accident, the Tesla’s autopilot feature was turned on. This is not the first time a fatal accident has occurred while Tesla’s autopilot feature was activated. Though we cannot know with any certainty what the driver was doing at the time of the crash, we know he wasn’t paying close attention to driving and understand that there appears to be an overconfidence in Tesla’s autopilot capabilities. Unfortunately, there have been disturbing reports of Teslas driving without drivers alongside reports of drivers sleeping while using Tesla’s autopilot features. Tragically, the reliance on autopilot seems to be costing the lives of others. Although the laws regarding autopilot features are not quite up to date with our technology, with the amount of lives lost in autopilot accidents, the conversation seems to be one of growing importance.

Let’s Talk about Apportioned Fault

Under Utah law, multiple parties can be at fault for an accident. When multiple parties are at fault, liability is apportioned. In a case where liability is apportioned, it may look something like this: Party A is 30% at fault, Party B is 20% at fault, and Party C is 50% at fault. In a case like this, each party will pay a portion of the damages proportionate to the amount of fault they have. So, if the settlement is $100,000, Party A will pay $30,000, Party B will pay $20,000, and Party C will pay $50,000. In the aforementioned case, there were three defendants found liable. However, the plaintiff can also be found partially liable for their injuries. If the plaintiff was found liable for their injuries, they would lose a portion of their settlement proportionate to the amount of fault they have. If it’s decided that the plaintiff was more than 50% at fault, they cannot be awarded damages.

What’s Product Liability?

In the most simple terms, the “creator” of a product can be held liable for any damages the product causes due to defects that occurred anywhere in the supply chain. Note the quotations around creator. We’re being intentionally vague here because liability can fall anywhere on the supply chain. There can be manufacturing defects, design defects, or marketing defects. When it comes to holding companies accountable for their dangerous product, there’s not one party, such as the CEO, who’s always liable for the defect. In fact, many different parties can be liable for defects that make a product unreasonably dangerous.

What about the Driver?

The driver likely has some fault here. Though some Teslas have been widely regarded as “self-driving” cars, the driver knew, or reasonably should have known, that he needed to keep his eyes on the road, and be ready to jump in when the car’s autopilot mode makes a mistake. To some extent, Tesla automobiles notify the driver that they need to also be paying attention while the car is driving. Though there aren’t many details available about this particular accident, some conditions may increase the driver’s liability, while others may decrease the driver’s liability. For example, if the driver looked away for a split second when he crashed into the motorcyclist, he would be less liable than he would be if he was texting and driving or sleeping at the time of the accident.

Design Defect

Though the driver very likely would have some fault in a case such as the aforementioned, Tesla may also have some liability here since it could be argued that the design of the Tesla and Tesla’s autopilot features make the car unreasonably dangerous. This would be considered to be a design defect. An attorney may argue that Tesla’s autopilot feature encourages drivers to be complacent while behind the wheel, making the car unreasonably dangerous. Basically, something about the car’s design has made it an unreasonably dangerous product when it’s being used as intended. Even though Tesla discourages their drivers from relying solely on autopilot, the autopilot can still be unreasonably dangerous. It may be argued that the design itself encourages drivers to pay less attention while driving, and this is leading to injury or death.

Marketing Defect

Tesla’s cars with autopilot capabilities may also be vulnerable to product liability lawsuits due to marketing defects. Marketing defects can occur when a product does not come with adequate warnings or instructions, or it is advertised or implied that it can be used in ways that are in reality dangerous. Tesla likes to sit on the fence when it comes to their cars’ capabilities. On one hand, they appear to be content with being known as the company with self-driving cars. It’s good for business. On the other hand, it seems as though they don’t want to bolster their claims too much, for fear of over-selling their cars’ ability to drive themselves. If a personal injury attorney could successfully argue that Tesla had over-sold the car’s ability to drive itself and that led to someone being killed, then Tesla may be found liable in a wrongful death suit.

Remembering the Victims

People have lost their lives in accidents involving Tesla’s autopilot function. Though the motorcyclist’s name has not been released at the time of writing this, the motorcyclist was a person with family and friends. People are undoubtedly grieving the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one. If you have a Tesla with autopilot features, please remember that it’s important to keep your eyes on the road, and your hands on the wheel, at all times. Do not be the reason a family is learning to live without their loved one.