Feds Launch Probe Following Driverless Car Crashes

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is demanding answers from Tesla after its vehicles’ auto pilot feature allegedly failed in two separate incidents.

In May, 40-year-old Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla Model S sedan apparently failed to distinguish a beige-colored tractor-trailer from the bright sky and did not apply the brakes. After the car passed under the trailer at full speed and its roof sheared off, it drove off the road, crashed through at least two fences, and finally slammed into a pole. Apparently, the air bag never deployed. The manufacturer has until August 28 to produce data concerning its vehicles’ Forward Collision Warning (FCW) and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) systems.

Earlier this month, in a separate incident, a Tesla vehicle may have been in auto-pilot mode when it crashed in Pennsylvania.

Driverless Cars and Duty

Negligence law typically focuses on the tortfeasor’s (negligent driver’s) conduct or misconduct; few, if any courts, have ever specified what “driving” means in a legal sense. But, with most automakers planning to release driverless cars no later than 2025, it is time to study this issue.

Louisiana’s DUI law may offer some guidance. Curiously, the law does not say anything about “driving,” but “operating” a vehicle while intoxicated is illegal. Although it is rare, persons have been charged with DUI, and convicted, when they were idling outside a house or even parked on the street with the car in Park and the key not in the ignition. That is because courts define “operating” very broadly, to basically include any situation wherein a person has actual or potential control.

If civil courts adopt this line of reasoning, which is likely, a person behind the wheel of a driverless car is operating the vehicle, in a legal sense, because at any moment, the tortfeasor could disable the auto pilot or driverless function and start “driving” in the everyday sense of the word.

Tortfeasors who feel that a software or equipment failure is to blame for the crash could counter-sue the manufacturer under Louisiana’s comparative fault law, because if the car was defective, the manufacturer should have to answer for that tort.

Operators of driverless cars should not be immune from liability lawsuits. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Lake Charles, contact Hoffoss Devall. An attorney can arrange for victims to receive ongoing medical care, even if they have no money and no insurance.