When Carl Benz conceived the first lightweight car powered by a gasoline engine in the closing years of the 19th century, he could never have imagined the challenges faced by those in the 21st century, where cars that drive themselves are fast becoming a commonplace reality.
With big names like Tesla, Google, Uber, and Waymo betting their money on self-driving cars, it’s clear that this form of transportation will be part of the future. However, the utopia associated with self-driving cars is starting to give way to reality as engineers realize that driverless vehicles present new challenges that need novel solutions.
One of the biggest challenges associated with self-driving cars comes about when the vehicle causes a fatality. This results in a vital question: Is it still wrongful death if the car is driving itself?
To answer the question above, we will need to start by defining the idea of a self-driving car and wrongful death in general. We will then look at specific car accident cases where self-driving cars have killed people, leading to lawsuits. This should provide an idea of the arguments made by experts in this area regarding the question above.
As you read this article, it’s vital to remember that any information provided here is not intended as and does not constitute legal advice.
Self Driving Car Accident Statistics
Here are some numbers summarizing the situation with regards to self-driving cars and the fatalities they have caused.
You may be surprised to learn that self-driving cars cause more accidents (9.1 accidents per million miles driven) than vehicles involving a human driver (4.1 accidents per million miles driven)
To date, the number of deaths linked to Teslas where the Autopilot was engaged is six.
The 2019 traffic fatality rate was 1.1 fatalities per 100 million miles driven (including both human-driven cars and vehicles with self-driving capabilities).
Estimates indicate that Tesla Autopilot has driven about 3.3 billion miles. This implies that driving a Tesla on Autopilot (about one fatality in 550 million miles driven) is safer than human driving (about 1.1 fatalities per 100 million miles driven).
Brad Templeton writes for Forbes.com and suggests that it’s vital to look at the numbers above with caution. He points out several challenges with the math. For instance, when we count the fatality rate of Teslas with Autopilot, do we include deaths where it’s claimed that Autopilot was engaged even though that claim has not been verified? Is it possible to generate estimations of human driver fatalities based on highway information only?
Understanding Self-Driving Cars
The concept of a self-driving car denotes a vehicle endowed with numerous sensors that provide it with the capability to sense its environment in order to navigate safely whether it is driving itself or a human driver is in control. Other terms used interchangeably with self-driving cars include driverless cars, autonomous vehicles, and robo-cars.
Dr. Lance Eliot, an expert on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), explains the various categories of self-driving cars. He starts by noting that “True self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.”
According to Dr. Eliot, when a car entirely relies on AI to accomplish the entire driving task, it belongs in Level 4 or Level 5. On the other hand, cars that need coordination between the human driver and AI are usually placed in Level 2 or 3. He adds that “cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-ons that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).”
The move toward self-driving cars, in general, is based on the assumption that most accidents on roadways can be attributed to human error. For instance, a paper published by the Accident Analysis & Prevention journal identifies inexperience, lack of skill, and risk-taking behaviors as the main factors contributing to road accidents.
When self-driving cars designed to reduce road carnage start to cause fatal accidents, concerns are raised regarding their safety and the issues of liability. Determining liability can be a sizable challenge, especially when you consider that many individuals and entities could play a role in an accident: the driver, car maker, technology provider, government, and local authorities.
Defining Wrongful Death
Wrongful death is when a person dies because of the intentional or accidental wrongful act of another party. When there is a possibility that the car accident that led to the death of an individual constitutes wrongful death, members of the deceased person’s family can institute a lawsuit to get compensation for loss and pain associated with the death of the person in question.
Therefore, when we ask whether it is still wrongful death if the car is driving itself, we are trying to understand whom the wrongful death claim should be made against. Some people argue that the manufacturer of the car and the technology in it should be held liable.
On the other hand, there is a lobby that argues that there is always someone responsible for the car at any time. Therefore, that person has full responsibility for the car and should be held legally answerable for controlling the vehicle.
Who Can Sue For Wrongful Death?
When claiming wrongful death in car accidents involving self-driving cars, laws can differ depending on the jurisdiction. However, in most cases, the immediate family, life partners, spouses, and others who were dependent on the deceased individual can sue for wrongful death. Some jurisdictions also allow for anyone that can show proof that they have suffered financially to sue.
Who Can Be Sued?
In the case of road accidents involving self-driving cars, several individuals and entities can be sued:In the case of road accidents involving self-driving cars, several individuals and entities can be sued:
All drivers are allowed to use public roads based on the assumption that they will observe the duty to care for other road users like cyclists, other drivers, and pedestrians. Where there is proof that a driver’s negligence caused a fatality, a wrongful death lawsuit can be brought to court.
Common examples of driver negligence include drinking and driving, speeding, and texting while driving.
The government plays a profound role in ensuring that drivers are safe. For instance, the government is responsible for making sure that manufacturers of cars and technologies used by such cars meet established safety standards.
The government is also responsible for ensuring that the surfaces on which these self-driving cars move do not have hazards that could result in fatalities. Also, self-driving cars rely on properly functioning road signage and traffic signals. In most cases, local governments are responsible for maintaining such infrastructure and ensuring that drivers observe the law.
The companies that provide technologies to manufacturers of self-driving cars have a significant role in ensuring that their technology functions as it is supposed to. Therefore, if a car relying on such technology is involved in an accident that results in a fatality, it’s vital to consider whether there was negligence on the part of the technology supplier.
As has been seen in several lawsuits involving Tesla, the vehicle manufacturer is often the first port of call for families alleging wrongful death from self-driving cars.
In 2019, Tesla was sued by the family of a driver (Jeremy Beren Banner) who died in a car crash while using the Autopilot advanced driver assistance system.
In a report about the 2019 case published by TheVerge.com, Sean O’Kane writes, “Banner is the fourth known person to die while using Autopilot, and his family is the second to sue Tesla over a fatal crash involving the technology. O’Kane adds that “In May , Tesla was sued by the family of 38-year-old Wei Huang, who died in 2018 after his Model X crashed into an off-ramp divider with Autopilot engaged.”
Vehicle manufacturers also face a higher level of scrutiny than other entities that may contribute to wrongful death in self-driving cars. For instance, Yahoo Finance senior columnist Rick Newman produced an article entitled “It’s time to notice Tesla’s Autopilot death toll.” In that article, he seems to lay most of the blame for Tesla self-driving vehicle fatalities on the car maker’s doorstep.
Newman illustrates the challenge of determining responsibility when he writes, “Tesla is proving something other automakers dare not attempt: New technology + foolish drivers = death.” He continues, “Tesla promotes Autopilot as if it’s the world’s most advanced self-driving system. It’s not.” It’s his view that the specific use of the term Autopilot could confuse drivers into a false sense of security that could result in risky behavior.
Who Is Liable For The Fatality?
In an attempt to work out who is responsible when a self-driving car causes a fatality, Ron Schmelzer, Managing Partner & Principal Analyst at AI Focused Research and Advisory firm Cognilytica and a contributor at Forbes.com, resorts to the 2018 Uber AV fatality. The Uber vehicle struck pedestrian Elaine Herzberg as she crossed a road in Arizona. She died from the injuries sustained in the crash.
In his attempt to determine who could have been liable for the fatality, Schmelzer analyzes the role of everyone involved.
Schmelzer starts by looking at the two humans involved in the accident: the person supervising the car and the deceased. The deceased is reported to have been walking a bike and not using a crosswalk. Suppose this means that the pedestrian was at fault. In that case, the next question is why the person supervising the vehicle did not take any action to stop the car or swerve.
Schmelzer then considers the technology and the vehicle as the potential main culprits in the fatal accident. He asks several questions related to the AI technologies’ ability to handle all the possible road scenarios in the real world and whether the sensors were confused because the pedestrian was walking a bike.
Schmelzer concludes that “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to pin the fault on just one person or one factor.” This is a view based on the assumption that “The totality of the circumstances may add up to the reality that fault lies with many parties.”
The BBC later reported that the Uber backup driver, Rafael Vasquez, had been streaming an episode of the television show The Voice at the time of the accident. Vasquez was later charged with negligent homicide.
Uber did not face any criminal charges because prosecutors ruled that the company was not criminally liable for Herzberg’s death.
A Complex Web
The views expressed by Schmelzer above are vindicated by a decision made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) following the 2018 Uber crash. The Columbia University’s engineering division reports that the NTSB “split the blame among Uber, the company’s autonomous vehicle (AV), the safety driver in the vehicle, the victim, and the state of Arizona.”
It’s clear from the NTSB decision that determining liability is complicated. This is because often, an accident is not a result of the wrongful action of a single person or factor.
Is It Still Wrongful Death?
From the views expressed above, we can conclude that whether a car is driving itself or is being controlled by a human driver, a wrongful death claim can still result if the fatality is caused by any intentional or accidental wrongful act of another party.
While it’s clear that a fatality caused by a wrongful act should be considered a wrongful death, the challenge comes about when we attempt to determine who is liable. For those who want precedents regarding liability, it’s unfortunate that big companies like Uber have resorted to out-of-court settlements. Consequently, there is limited guidance from court rulings regarding the issue.
There are still only a small number of cases that have gone to court and only limited court rulings that could provide an idea of how the courts look at issues of liability in varying cases. As such, it’s safe to say that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the issues of self-driving cars and liability for accidents. Circumstances will always differ. Laws in different jurisdictions may also differ.
Contact a Wrongful Death Car Accident Attorney
As you can see, wrongful death car accident claims can be complex and difficult to navigate, especially when there are elements like self-driving cars involved. If you or a loved one were injured or affected by a wrongful death, you may need the services of an experienced attorney who can sort out liability, damages, and other legal issues.
If you’ve been involved in a collision with a large truck, your first thought most likely isn’t, “Hmm, I ought to hire a truck accident lawyer.” You may be in pain, terrified, thankful to be alive, worried that you may not survive without injury, or a swirling mix of all of the above. However, hiring a truck accident injury attorney is indeed one of the first things you should do after seeking medical attention, and as soon as possible. Let us at Pittman, Dutton, Hellums, Bradley & Mann tell you why.
Why Do I Need a Commercial Truck Accident Lawyer Right Away?
It should be the case that after a potentially life-altering accident with a semi-truck, tanker, flatbed, or tow truck, you have nothing to worry about but your own well-being. That unfortunately is not the case.
When it comes to commercial trucking and transport, some company’s money is on the line, as well as the money held by insurance companies, and possibly the personal holdings of the vehicle’s driver. Who is responsible for the damages caused during a commercial truck accident depends on where liability is placed, meaning who is at fault.
While you may be in an ambulance, worrying about your injuries or the life of your loved one, wheels are in motion to try and limit company costs.
Time is of the essence. Evidence on your side might be “evanescent,” meaning it could change, disappear, or alter over time. For example, rain could wash away tire tracks that show where vehicles were placed around the time of the accident, or nearby video footage could be erased or recorded over if it isn’t gathered soon enough. Likewise, eyewitness memories of the accident could fade, so timely testimony from onlookers is important to secure quickly.
Another important point regarding time is filing deadlines. Lawyers for the companies involved in the crash may exploit delays in your reaction to the accident, hoping you’ll wait to contact an attorney until you can no longer bring a legal filing against them. Having your own lawyer who is also aware of the time limits surrounding truck accident cases means you can focus on recovering without missing any of these windows of opportunity.
Before these companies start building a story that somehow clears them of responsibility and leaves you without the support you deserve, reach out to a commercial truck accident lawyer so that there’s an advocate out there working for you.
What Can a Truck Accident Lawyer Do to Help Me?
According to the National Safety Council, large trucks can account for up to 10% of all vehicles involved in fatal crashes. That’s potentially over 5,000 vehicles across the United States each year, and more when you account for non-fatal injuries. These collisions come with unique burdens for those involved, especially when they involve commercial vehicles.
So: the answer to the question, “When to hire a car accident lawyer?” is as soon as possible, especially when it involves a large truck. The answer to, “Why? What can a lawyer do to help me so early?” is as follows.
Advise In Your Best Interest
Before you answer anyone’s questions or sign any documents regarding the accident, ask an accident attorney first. The keen awareness of a practiced lawyer can help make sure you’re not inadvertently claiming responsibility or signing away your rights, and advise you accordingly.
Depending on the extent of your injuries, you may think you are fine soon after an accident, only to later need more medical care due to internal bleeding, delayed symptoms of head trauma, or debilitating neck and back injuries that compound with time.
Conversely, you or your loved one may be in such an injured state that it is not possible to make long-term decisions. That could include your passenger or driver being in an unconscious state. Or it could mean that you personally are in so much pain, the only thing you know for sure is that you require immediate medical care. In that instance, you might sign anything if you were told you needed to before being allowed to access care.
Having an attorney’s recommendations in these moments could be life-saving. They may have the trusted counsel you need to hear when it matters most, be that advice, “Please go to the hospital for more follow-up,” or “You don’t have to sign anything to receive treatment.”
Collect Knowledgeable, Real-Time Documentation
A veteran truck accident attorney would have the experience to know what documentation they need to protect you should this car accident lead to a courtroom. That could include creating a record of your injuries, your recollections at the time of the accident, gathering witness names, and (with your consent) information from your doctors and nurses.
This does two things: it makes sure that someone with authority is speaking on your behalf in case you are (or feel) threatened or intimidated. It also allows you to focus on what’s most important, which is your physical and mental health after the trauma you’ve experienced.
While the tasks that follow a truck accident may be overwhelming, calling a truck accident law firm should be one of the easier undertakings. Our offices are ready to help ease your worries and protect your rights.
Experienced truck accident lawyers can help protect you from being taken advantage of, and provide clear-headed guidance if you’re overwhelmed during a crisis.
When Is It Too Late to Hire a Truck Accident Lawyer?
If you think you need help, have a case, or have a question that only a lawyer can answer, please call us as soon as possible. There are statutes of limitations that apply in automobile accidents, which means your window of opportunity to seek legal help is closing. Our lawyers at Pittman, Dutton, Hellums, Bradley & Mann handle nationwide cases and can be reached by phone at (205) 322-8880, or via our online contact form.
If you think you may have waived your rights to sue or signed your name to a statement of fault, it could affect your ability to collect damages. Call us to be sure, and don’t give up hope for justice: though the circumstances may not seem fair, your lawyer is always on your side.
Pittman, Dutton, Hellums, Bradley & Mann, P.C. is proud to announce that five of our attorneys were recognized for the 2020 Super Lawyer Awards in varying capacities. Four of our attorneys were selected as 2020 Mid-South Super Lawyers, one as a 2020 Mid-South Rising Star, and another on two Top 50 lists. The Super Lawyer award is an honor our attorneys have been privileged to be chosen for in years past and one that speaks of our accomplishments and valued relationships with countless colleagues.(more…)
The Best Lawyers in America list is a distinction based on a stringent peer review and is one of the oldest and most esteemed publications in the legal industry. Beginning in 1983, the process has evolved to include “Best Law Firms” and now “Ones to Watch,” which was recently created to recognize up-and-coming attorneys.
We have been awarded four Tier 1 Rankings. Firms that receive a Tier designation reflect the highest level of respect a firm can earn among other law firms and clients from the same practice areas in their communities.
Our Regional Rankings for the Birmingham Area are as follows:
The U.S. News Best Lawyers Purely Peer Review™ process has used the same honest assessment for over 30 years. Lawyers are rated by their colleagues according to geographical location as well as field of practice. Read more about the methodology process here, which details how lawyers are selected.
On behalf of each partner, Pittman, Dutton, Hellums, Bradley & Mann would like to thank our wonderful and generous colleagues for allowing us to receive this honor for the 2021 year. We are humbled and privileged to call many of you our friends and respected allies in the fight for justice and safety.
Lee Pittman and Tom Dutton founded our firm in 1986, with the unique goal of passionately representing people who need help. Since then, we have grown to be one of the most successful plaintiffs’ firms in the state of Alabama.
Our personal injury attorneys are highly skilled and experienced in handling complex, contentious matters on behalf of clients. They have also achieved great success in arbitrations, mediations, and other alternative dispute resolution channels.
Our philosophy is to put our clients’ interests first and achieve the best possible results. We provide each client with high-quality service and personalized attention and have settled or tried literally hundreds of million-dollar cases.
Our Practice Areas
We have extensive experience litigating cases in the following areas:
Legal issues and disputes can arise in any of these areas. If you or a loved one need legal representation, contact us at (205) 322-8880 when you’re ready. There is no obligation to speak with us, and the information you share with us will be kept confidential. We will listen to your story and inform you of your legal rights and options moving forward.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were nearly 6.3 million car crashes in the United States in 2015, a number that was the highest it had been in more than 10 years. Out of those crashes, there were 32,166 fatalities and more than 1.7 million injuries. Nearly one in three car crashes will result in a serious injury or fatality. If you drive, you should be prepared to take steps to protect yourself if you are in a car crash, and that includes gathering the proper records and evidence in case you decide to pursue a car accident claim.
If you were in a car accident caused by the negligence of another party, and you pursue a car insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit against them, the success of your claim or lawsuit will depend on your ability to prove fault and the extent of your damages. Having proper paperwork helps your case.
Car accidents can be jarring and stressful. Make sure you keep these records so that you have peace of mind you have all the documents you need, should you decide to pursue legal action if the negligence of another made you a car accident victim.
1. Police Report
If you’re seriously injured in a car accident, it’s always a good idea to call 911. Police can file a formal report of the scene of the accident, as well as interview witnesses and the other parties involved. A police report is a document that holds major clout in the eyes of insurance companies and in court.
When talking with police, be honest about what happened, but do not make statements that place fault or blame on you if you are a victim. In the stress of the car accident environment, sometimes victims offer an apology, even when they did nothing wrong. Don’t do this.
As you talk to police, be sure to point out:
Any traffic violations the other party carried out
Any suspicious behavior you observe in the other party, such as the smell of alcohol or marijuana
Anything the other party said, such as admitting guilt
If there are witnesses of the car accident, ask them to stay at the scene until police arrive, so police can question them, as well. At the very least, ask for the name, driver’s license number and phone number/email address of witnesses, so they can be contacted for statements later.
Get a copy of the police report by contacting the police department that came to the scene. Give your name and the names of any other drivers involved, as well as the name/badge number of the officer who came to the scene, and the date and location of the accident. You’ll want to take note of all this information at the accident scene.
2. Car Accident Evidence
In addition to the police report, it’s helpful to document your own evidence of the car accident. Shoot photos or videos of the damage to your car, as well as damage to any other vehicles involved. If property was harmed in the accident, take photos and videos of that. If there are signs of a car accident like skid marks, take photos of those, too.
You can also document any physical injuries to you or other passengers. If you hear questionable statements from any party, write them down in addition to telling police about them. If your injuries prevent you from gathering evidence at the car accident scene, ask someone for help in doing so, including from police.
After the accident, you may also want to contact businesses close by, who may have had video surveillance and footage of the accident. A video of the accident while it occurred can be extremely helpful.
3. Medical Records
It’s essential to keep all records of medical treatment you receive. It’s helpful to create a binder dedicated to housing all records from your car accident, so you have everything organized in one place. Make sure to keep all your bills in addition to treatment documents. Treatment documents include treatments received, diagnoses, prescribed medications and any other files that contain medical recommendations.
Your medical treatments may last months or more. Gather records that range from emergency medical services you receive at the scene of the accident, all the way to physical therapy that occurs weeks or months after the accident. Verbally request these at your appointments, or call the medical/billing department at your healthcare provider to obtain them.
4. Lost Wages Proof
If you have to miss time off work due to your injury, you’ll want to quantify how much money you’ve lost by showing proof of income. To do this, gather any pay stubs and/or tips records that show your income.
If you receive any documentation from your employer, keep those records, too. If your injury prevents you from returning to work altogether, keep any documentation that shows those losses.
5. Vehicle Repairs and Damage
As you get your vehicle repaired after the accident, keep all records documenting repair work. If your vehicle was totaled, you’ll want to get documentation that shows the estimated value of your car before it was destroyed. If your vehicle was towed away from the scene, contact the towing company and ask them to keep the vehicle intact until it can be examined and documented.
You can consult with several auto body repair shops to get an accurate estimate of damages. Your car insurance company will likely play a prominent role in assessing damages, as well, so retain all documents sent from them.
6. Personal Account
Because you may not file a claim or lawsuit until well after the car accident has occurred, the more details you can remember and have access to, the better. Keep in mind, though, that the statute of limitations for filing a personal injury lawsuit in Alabama is two years, which means you must file a lawsuit within two years of your accident.
To keep the details of your accident fresh in your mind, keep an accident journal. This will help especially when you provide testimony in your case. It will also be of great assistance to your legal team.
Begin your journal on the day of your accident. In your journal, document everything that happened at the scene of the accident and how your injuries progress. Also, note vehicle repair chronology. A journal can help you see how the severity of the accident impacts your life, from the medical treatment you have to receive, to how it affects your work. Make sure to date each entry and write about how you’re feeling physically, mentally and emotionally.
Contact a Birmingham Car Accident Lawyer for Help
If you are a car accident victim, the Birmingham car accident attorney team at Pittman, Dutton, Hellums, Bradley & Mann can help. We offer no-obligation, free consultations and will only take on your case if we believe we can win. You don’t pay unless your case is successful.
If you’ve compiled records like those mentioned, those are helpful in how we determine what your case is worth. Contact us for a free consultation today.