Self-Driving Uber Car Kills Pedestrian in Arizona – How Would This Play Out in a New York Personal Injury Lawsuit?

On Sunday, March 18, 2018, a first-of-its-kind tragedy occurred in Arizona: a self-driving car from Uber’s fleet of autonomous vehicles (which are currently undergoing real-world testing, some of it occurring on Arizona’s public streets and highways) killed a pedestrian.  The victim – a woman from Tempe, Arizona – was killed while crossing the street in her home town.  The tragic occurrence of a pedestrian fatality due to the negligent operation of a motor vehicle is, unfortunately, not exactly an uncommon occurrence, whether in New York City, Arizona, or anywhere else in the United States.  What makes this tragedy especially notable is that it constitutes the first reported case of a pedestrian fatality caused by an autonomous, AI-powered, self-driving vehicle anywhere in the United States. The New York Times covered this story this week, and you can read more about it by visiting the New York Times’ website and searching for the article.

While much of the public discussion regarding this tragedy centers around the phenomenon of artificial intelligence and its exponential growth and potential to upend society as we know it, this article attempts to analyze this horrific milestone from the perspective of a New York car accident attorney.  Thus, we ask the following pertinent question, the answer to which will likely become of extraordinary importance to the everyday lives of New Yorkers as the ubiquity of artificial intelligence grows, and which will surely feature in any debate regarding the opening of New York’s roadways to driverless vehicles:  Who would be responsible for this horrific tragedy, and thus liable to be sued for compensation in connection with the wrongful death of this poor woman, had this accident occurred in New York?  

Our analysis begins by looking to the current state of New York car accident law for insight into how this important question might be answered.  Under New York law, and more specifically Section 388 of the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law, owners and operators of motor vehicles are “jointly and severally” liable for any injuries caused by the use and operation of their vehicles.  Any owner of a vehicle who allows another person to drive their car with permission and consent, whether express or implied, is individually responsible for the full amount of any damage caused by a crash involving their vehicle in which the operator was negligent and caused the accident.  The driver of the vehicle is also responsible to pay the full amount of any damage caused by his or her negligence in connection with the operation of the vehicle.  With this in mind, in the unfortunate Arizona case of last Sunday involving Uber’s self-driving car, Uber, as the owner of the vehicle, would most likely be held responsible for paying damages, so long as it could be proven that Uber’s self-driving vehicle was operated by its artificially-intelligent operating system in a manner that violated the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law and the “Rules of the Road” in New York.

The question of whether Uber, as the designer and owner of the software system that controls its self-driving vehicle, would be deemed to have been “operating” the vehicle for purposes of liability for an accident involving a self-driving car is one that will have to be carefully considered, and may require updates to New York’s car accident laws as this technology, and legal regimes regulating it, become further developed.  Also interesting is the question of whether or not the “brain” of the self- driving car (a computer) itself – a machine which will only operate according to its programming algorithms – or the individual engineer who designed the software that operates the self-driving car, will be deemed to be the “operator” of the vehicle.  If the engineer designing the self-driving car’s operating system makes a mistake in its programming that causes the self-driving car to violate a traffic law and cause an accident, is that engineer liable for the accident as would be any other “operator” of a motor vehicle?  New York’s car accident laws have not yet contemplated this question, which will ultimately become of significant importance as self-driving cars proliferate and, ultimately, enter the roadways in New York City and all over our state.