One of the common questions arising from the development of autonomous (self-driving) cars is how liability will be determined if someone is injured due to a hardware or software problem. In a car accident today involving human drivers, one or more of the drivers is nearly always at fault, except in relatively rare situations involving a defect in the roadway, improper maintenance, or a defective car or car part, leading to a product liability claim. As the Associated Press has reported, California recently considered, and rejected, a rule that would have significantly limited the liability of a manufacturer where a vehicle problem led to a crash. Nevertheless, it remains unclear how cases will be handled when and if self-driving cars become commonplace on the highway.
Current Georgia automobile insurance and product liability law
Under current law in Georgia, all vehicles on the road must carry liability insurance (or be self-insured under strict regulations set out by the Georgia Insurance Commissioner. When that vehicle's driver causes an accident, the insurance covering the vehicle is available to compensate a person injured by a negligent driver. But this presumes that a human driver is responsible for the wreck and resulting injury. If a defect in the vehicle itself somehow causes an injury, and there is no negligence on the part of a human driver, the person (or multiple people) injured may be able to pursue a product liability claim against the vehicle manufacturer, or the manufacturer of the part that failed. For example, if a vehicle loses control due to a defective tire, someone injured as a result may be able to pursue compensation through a product liability claim. Or, a seat belt or airbag may fail to function properly, resulting in a serious injury even where the underlying wreck may have otherwise been minor.
Product liability claims, however, are complex, and often involve years of litigation. They are also costly, often involving tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses to prove the case, far beyond the amount that could reasonably be justified in many auto accident cases. For example, Georgia product liability cases often require extensive document review of corporate documents, including investigation of the product design and testing, as well as expert testimony involving the safety of a particular design. Therefore, product liability claims may not be feasible or practical in cases involving serious, but not catastrophic damages, and would likely rarely be possible in minor injury cases due to the enormous costs involved.
Under the current law, in Georgia at least, this could leave innocent motorists and passengers without an adequate remedy if injured due to a defect in either the hardware or software of a self-driving car. Although Georgia provides for medical payments coverage (sometimes called "Med Pay"), which covers medical expenses regardless of fault, this coverage is not required, and often provides only very limited coverage even where it is available. It provides no compensation for lost income or pain and suffering damages, and would not provide compensation under Georgia's wrongful death law.
California's rejected approach
The proposal recently rejected in California, which was based on a suggestion made by General Motors, would have protected manufacturers from liability if the vehicle was not maintained in accordance with manufacturer specifications. While proper vehicle maintenance is important - in fact, a vehicle driver or owner can be liable if the vehicle is not properly maintained and as a result a person is injured - in reality many vehicles have at least minor variances from manufacturer specifications. As the AP noted in an earlier article, for example, "manufacturers might avoid liability if the tires on self-driving cars are slightly underinflated or even if the oil hasn't been changed as regularly as manufacturers suggest," a concern raised by Armand Feliciano of the Association of California Insurance Companies. The proposed rule "could open a loophole for automakers to skirt responsibility for accidents, injuries and deaths caused by defective autonomous vehicles," noted Mr. Feliciano. In such cases, those injured and killed by self-driving cars may be left without compensation. The proposal's rejection was called "a major victory for consumers" by a spokesman for the non-profit group Consumer Watchdog.
California plans to adopt rules for autonomous cars next year. Though the rules will have no application in Georgia, other states may follow California's lead, since it is the scene of large-scale testing of self-driving cars. It remains to be seen how Georgia will handle this issue.