Driverless (Self-Driving) Car Accidents Lawsuits in California

As driverless or self-driving vehicles are becoming more common on the road, there has been an increase in the number of car accidents involving autonomous vehicles. When a driver or pedestrian is injured in an accident with a self-driving car, the injury victim may not know who is responsible for the accident.

Accident victims can file a personal injury lawsuit against the company behind the driverless vehicle for damages after an injury accident. If a self-driving car is responsible for causing the accident, the victim may have a claim for damages under product liability laws. If a driver is using an autopilot mode when the car is involved in an accident, the driver may also be at fault.

The victim in a motor vehicle accident may be able to file a lawsuit to get compensation for their injuries, including:

If someone is killed in a driverless vehicle accident, the family may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit for damages. Damages in a wrongful death claim can include:

  • Funeral expenses,
  • Loss of income from the deceased, and
  • Loss of support caused by the death of a loved one.
Driverless car
When a driver or pedestrian is injured in an accident with a self-driving car, the injury victim may not know who is responsible for the accident.

Below, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about lawsuits for accidents involving driverless vehicles:

If you have further questions about driverless vehicle accidents after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. Who is at fault in an accident with a driverless car?

Fault in a car accident involving a driverless vehicle or partially autonomous vehicle depends on a number of factors, including if one or multiple vehicles were violating traffic laws that caused the accident. Fault in a driverless vehicle accident generally involves one of the following:

  • The operator behind the wheel of a partially autonomous vehicle;
  • The driver of the regular car (not the driverless vehicle); or
  • Companies that produced, manufactured, or designed the driverless vehicle.

However, fault in an accident can fall on multiple parties. If more than one person or group are responsible for causing an accident, a jury can decide what percentage each party shares in the blame (adding up to 100%).

Even if the injury victim shares in the blame for causing the accident, he or she can still recover partial damages under California's “comparative fault” laws.1

In most cases, fault in a car accident is based on negligence. Drivers owe other drivers, pedestrians, and others a duty of care to use reasonable care when driving. Drivers have to keep a lookout for other vehicles, pedestrians, and other obstacles.23

Failure to use reasonable care when driving which causes an accident is negligence. In filing a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove the following:

  1. The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. The defendant breached the duty of care through negligence; and
  3. The defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the harm or death.4

If the defendant is found to be negligent by the judge or jury, the defendant may be liable to the plaintiff for any damages or injuries.

1.1. The operator of a partially autonomous vehicle is at fault for the accident.

Most driverless vehicles on the road still have a human in the driver's seat. Autonomous vehicles are generally operating under pilot programs that require a human test driver or operator who is able to take immediate control of the vehicle in case of an emergency.

In California, the “operator” is defined as “the person who is seated in the driver's seat, or, if there is no person in the driver's seat, causes the autonomous technology to engage.”5

Under California Vehicle Code 38750, autonomous vehicles must have a safety alert system to alert the operator if a failure in the autonomous technology is detected. The operator must also be able to take full control of the autonomous vehicle, including use of the:

  • Brake,
  • Accelerator, and
  • Steering wheel.

If the test driver does not take control in the event of an emergency, the test driver may be at fault for causing the accident.

If the operator takes control of the vehicle and does something to cause the accident, the test driver may also be responsible for the accident. When the self-driving mode is not used or the test driver overrides the autonomous mode, the test driver is operating the vehicle just like any other driver.

However, California has begun accepting applications for fully driverless vehicles. Driverless testing permits will allow for autonomous cars without any human test drivers (or steering wheels, gas and brake pedals, or mirrors).

Some vehicles, including Tesla models, have an autopilot system. Drivers may treat the autopilot system as a self-driving mode; however, drivers are still required to be able to take control of the vehicle in case of an accident. According to Tesla, “every driver is responsible for remaining alert and active when using Autopilot, and must be prepared to take action at any time.”6

1.2. The driver of the non-driverless car caused the accident.

The driver of a non-autonomous car may be at fault for causing the accident. When any driver fails to use reasonable care when driving and causes an accident, the driver may be liable for the damage even if the other vehicle involved was in self-driving mode.

Drivers owe a duty to watch out for pedestrians, obstacles, and their vehicles, including driverless vehicles. Drivers must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. Failure to use reasonable care in causing an accident can be evidence of negligence.7

Violating traffic laws can also be evidence of negligence in causing an accident. This includes:

  • Speeding;
  • Failure to stop at a traffic signal;
  • Failure to yield;
  • Road rage;
  • Distracted driving;
  • Drunk driving; or
  • Driving with broken brake lights.

1.3. The driverless vehicle company is liable for the accident.

Driverless vehicle accidents have been caused by failures in the autonomous driving systems. There could be any number of reasons for driverless vehicle defects, including software bugs, system failures, or failure to allow the operator to take control.

Driverless vehicle systems use radar, cameras, sensors, and powerful computers to operate the vehicle, including controlling speed, braking, and steering. A number of companies are testing driverless vehicles on the road, including:

  • Tesla
  • Uber
  • Google (Waymo)
  • General Motors

Under California's products liability laws, anyone who designs, manufactures or sells a defective product is strictly liable for injuries caused by that product. This means that an injured plaintiff does not have to show that the company was negligent, only that the product was dangerous and caused the accident.8

Product liability involving driverless vehicles could involve the following types of defects:

When a driverless car accident was caused by a manufacturing defect, design defect, or did not provide proper warnings for expected use, the driverless vehicle company may be held liable for the damages.

2. What kind of compensation can I get after a driverless car accident?

In a personal injury lawsuit, the injury victim files a claim for damages. Compensatory damages include economic and noneconomic compensation. These damages are intended to put the victim into a similar position they would have been in if the accident had never occurred.

Damages in a car accident involving a driverless car may include:

  • Lost income,
  • Medical treatment,
  • Vehicle damage,
  • Lost future earnings,
  • Pain and suffering,
  • Physical therapy,
  • Future medical treatment,
  • Court costs,
  • Emotional distress,
  • Loss of a limb,
  • Loss of consortium, and
  • Loss of enjoyment of life.

Punitive damages may also be available, in some cases. Also called exemplary damages, these are available in cases where the defendant engaged in an especially bad behavior. Ordinary negligence is generally not enough to make a claim for punitive damages. However, punitive damages may be available where the defendant's actions were malicious, oppressive, extremely reckless, fraudulent, or intentional.10

3. Can the family file a lawsuit in a fatal driverless car accident?

If someone is killed in an accident involving a driverless car, the victim cannot do anything to hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions. However, family members may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit to make sure the individuals responsible for causing the accident have to answer for their actions.11

In California, only certain family members can file a claim for damages in a wrongful death lawsuit. This is limited to:

  • Spouses;
  • Domestic partners;
  • Children;
  • Grandchildren (if the children are deceased); and
  • Anyone else who is entitled to property of the deceased under California intestate succession laws.

Damages available in a wrongful death lawsuit are to compensate the family for their losses caused by the death of a loved one. This includes:

  • Burial costs;
  • Funeral costs;
  • Loss of financial support that would have been provided by the deceased;
  • Loss of support;
  • Loss of affection; and
  • Loss of companionship.

4. How do I show who was responsible for a driverless vehicle accident?

Like other car accidents, each party involved may have a different story of what caused the accident. However, driverless vehicle accidents may be more complicated because it may be unclear if the driverless vehicle system or software was responsible for the accident.

Disputed car accident claims may require an investigation by the insurance company and each party's lawyers. In a driverless vehicle accident claim, the investigation may require experts to review the accident evidence and data to determine what caused the accident.

Your personal injury attorney will investigate the accident and may have expert engineers review the case. The expert can then provide an expert opinion on the cause of the accident. The expert can also be called to testify in a case to explain their opinion to the jury.

5. Are driverless vehicles safe?

Like any other motor vehicle accident, driverless vehicles can cause collisions that result in serious injury or even death. Driverless vehicles have only been on the roads for a short period of time and the number of self-driving cars is only a small fraction of all vehicles on the road. However, there have been a number of accidents involving driverless vehicles and some fatalities.

There have been at least 4 known fatalities in vehicles using self-driving systems.

  • In January 2016, Gao Yaning, 23, was driving a Tesla Model S when the vehicle crashed into a street sweeper near Handan, China. The driver's father believes his son was using the autopilot mode when the crash occurred.12
  • On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown, 40, was driving a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode in Florida when the car crashed into an 18-wheel truck, killing the driver.13
  • On March 18, 2018, a pedestrian was struck and killed by a Volvo fitted with Uber's self-driving system in Tempe, Arizona.14
  • On March 23, 2018, Walter Huang, 38, was killed when his Tesla Model X crashed in Mountain View, California. The vehicle was in autopilot mode at the time of the crash.15

In addition to the fatal driverless vehicle accidents, there have been a number of accidents and near-misses involving vehicles in autonomous or semi-autonomous modes. Any vehicle operating on the road can cause a serious motor vehicle accident or injure pedestrians and cyclists. If you have any questions about compensation after an injury accident, contact your California personal injury lawyer.

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For questions about driverless vehicle accidents or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled California car accident attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 405. See also California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 406. (“... you must then decide how much responsibility each has by assigning percentages of responsibility to each person listed on the verdict form. The percentages must total 100 percent.”)
  2. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 700. Basic Standard of Care. (“A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.“)
  3. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 411 (“Every person has a right to expect that every other person will use reasonable care, unless he or she knows, or should know, that the other person will not use reasonable care.”)
  4. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a) (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”)
  5. California Vehicle Code 38750(4) -- Autonomous Driver -- Operator Definition.
  6. Tesla -- Enhanced Autopilot at https://www.tesla.com/autopilot.
  7. CACI 700, see footnote 2 above.
  8. Soule v. GM Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, 560 (“A manufacturer, distributor, or retailer is liable in tort if a defect in the manufacture or design of its product causes injury while the product is being used in a reasonably foreseeable way.”)
  9. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) Series 1200 -- Products Liability.
  10. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3940 - Punitive Damages. See also California Civil Code § 3294 (“(a) In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”)
  11. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)
  12. “Autopilot Cited in Death of Chinese Tesla Driver.” New York Times, September 14, 2016.
  13. “Tesla driver dies in first fatal crash while using autopilot mode.” The Guardian, June 30, 2016.
  14. Self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian as human safety driver watched.” Vice News, March 19, 2018.
  15. "Tesla: Autopilot was on during deadly Mountain View crash.” The Mercury News, March 30, 2018.

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