Schmitt Mulhern, LLC

Who's to blame in self-driving car fatal accident?

If you are of a certain age you probably remember how the world of the future was envisioned to be one where technology would rule. Look at the newsreels and magazines of the past and you will see an array of big ideas on display. Among them was the notion of self-driving cars; vehicles that don't require the driver to keep hands on the steering wheel because electronics do all the work. Computers would not only relieve humans of driving drudgery, they would prevent deadly car crashes.

It's taken a few decades to get there, but we now seem to be on the cusp of such an environment. Witness the development of crash air bags, cruise control and automatic braking systems. Car companies, perhaps most notably Tesla, have started to go even beyond those systems, creating what amounts to autopilots in cars. Can they be trusted? If they can't and accidents result, who should be held liable?

These questions are now on the radar in every state, including Missouri. One factor bringing the issue to the fore is a car crash in Florida just this past May that claimed the life of an Ohio man. According to reports, he was at the wheel of a high-tech Tesla car operating under its "Autopilot" system when it crashed into a semitrailer truck.

Preliminary information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it appears the truck turned left in front of car at a highway intersection and that the car went under the trailer, losing its roof. In its own statement about the event, Tesla said, "Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied."

In the wake of this fatal collision, debate has started to rage over liability. Many legal observers say Tesla could be liable because its Autopilot system apparently failed. However, there is evidence that the car's driver was watching a movie on a DVD player and not attending to the road, counter to warnings by Tesla when Autopilot is in use. It may be, too, that the truck driver bears liability if the left turn made violated traffic laws. More will likely be known when NHTSA finishes its probe.

Vehicle accidents, whether fatal or not, are rarely cut and dry. This incident suggests more legal questions are bound to arise as technologies advance.

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Ben Schmitt

Attorney Ben Schmitt

Mr. Schmitt has over 25 years of legal experience in Missouri and Kansas, and he has been first chair in over 100 jury trials in state and federal courts. He is recognized by the Kansas City Business Journal, Super Lawyers, Avvo.com and Martindale Hubbell as one of the best personal injury lawyers in Missouri and Kansas.

Matt Mulhern

Attorney Matt Mulhern

Mr. Mulhern has over 25 years of legal experience and a 100 percent success rate arguing before the Missouri Court of Appeals. He has a unique knowledge of the inner workings of insurance companies and how they will dispute your injury claim. He practices in both Missouri and Kansas.