An autonomous vehicle operated by ride-share company Uber was involved in a collision resulting in the death of a pedestrian on Sunday. The collision, in Tempe, Arizona, is believed to be the first death resulting from the operation of an autonomous car. An earlier fatality in 2016 involving a Tesla automobile occurred when the vehicle's "autopilot" system, which is not fully-autonomous and requires driver monitoring, was activated. The recent Uber-related death is under investigation (and it is not clear whether the Uber vehicle was "at fault"), but has raised serious questions about liability in cases of injury and death resulting from autonomous cars and trucks. Although it is likely that issues of liability in this specific case would depend on Arizona law, some observations can be made about how a similar case would be analyzed under Georgia law. Of course, many collisions are caused by the negligence of a pedestrian or other driver, which could negate or reduce the liability of the autonomous vehicle.
In general, Georgia automobile tort law (which includes personal injury and wrongful death claims) provides that before a claimant can make a claim against a driver or other person for injuries resulting from a car accident, the other driver, vehicle owner, or other person somehow involved must be shown to have acted negligently or intentionally and that his or her acts have resulted in the injury or death. In most cases, this question turns on whether the allegedly at-fault driver violated a traffic rule or statute, or otherwise acted recklessly or negligently while operating the motor vehicle.
In the case of autonomous/self-driving vehicles, this approach creates immediate complications. Such vehicles are designed to react to certain visual or physical cues in determining how to operate. Nevertheless, since these vehicles are in an early stage of development, and because malfunctions can occur, it is unlikely that current vehicles are able to respond properly to all situations.
Liability could therefore be based on several bases. First, if the vehicle manufacturer failed to properly program the vehicle to respond to traffic, pedestrians, and other objects, then the case may fall under the category of a product liability claim. Under Georgia law manufacturers of products can be liable if the product causes harm to someone due to a design defect, including improperly-programmed software. Second, if there were a manufacturing defect in the vehicle, such as a part that was properly designed but somehow dangerous because something failed in its production, the manufacturer could similarly be liable. Third, if a human operator were in the vehicle and could have taken some action to avoid the injury, the operator might face separate liability. In some cases multiple individuals or companies might be liable.
What would this mean for an individual owner of a vehicle? Under Georgia law, a vehicle owner is not generally liable for injuries caused when someone else is operating the vehicle. Exceptions can occur when the owner lets another person drive while knowing that the driver is unsafe, of if there is some sort of agency relationship between the driver and owner (such as an employment relationship or, in some cases, a family relationship). These sorts of claims include claims for negligent entrustment and claims under the family purpose doctrine. Whether an owner of a self-driving vehicle in Georgia would be deemed to have knowledge of dangers presented by autonomous cars has not yet been considered by the courts.
It is not clear whether a vehicle owner, who had no way to control a self-driving vehicle, would face personal liability in Georgia if that vehicle caused an injury. All vehicles operated on Georgia roads are required to carry a minimum amount of automobile insurance (or be self-insured under proper circumstances), and the insurance covers the operator of the car or truck regardless of whether the owner is personally liable. In order to properly protect pedestrians and motorists, a significant re-write of insurance laws may be required to take into consideration the possibility of damages causes without direct human interaction. As the law currently stands, the manufacturer would likely be liable (subject to sometimes difficult evidentiary proof of design or manufacturing defects), but the law is not necessarily prepared thus far for a future where autonomous vehicles are common.