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Self-Driving Cars and Personal Injury Claims

On March 18, 2018, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was wheeling a bicycle across a road in Tempe, Arizona, when she was struck by a car and killed. A devastating and tragic accident, of course–but this incident was incredibly unique. Ms. Herzberg was hit by an autonomous (or self-driving) Uber test vehicle, resulting in the first such recorded death.

Who Was At Fault?

This is where things get tricky because fault could potentially be assigned to a variety of sources.

  • Uber: Should Uber be held liable because it’s their car?
  • Self-driving technology manufacturers: Does the blame lie with the companies who designed and/or built the vehicle’s sensors, cameras, and automatic braking system?
  • The vehicle’s emergency safety driver: During Uber’s testing phase, their vehicles employed human emergency drivers in the car who were instructed to be ready to take control of the vehicle if a situation such as this were to arise. In this specific case, the car’s safety driver, Rafaela Vasquez, was not looking at the road, nor did she have her hands at the wheel when the vehicle struck Ms. Herzberg. Dash-cam footage shows Ms. Vasquez looking down for several seconds immediately before the accident–she looked up a half-second before impact and was unable to do anything at that point to avoid the collision.
  • The pedestrian: When determining liability in personal injury cases, it’s essential to consider all the situation’s circumstances. In this case, Ms. Helzberg was pushing her bike across a four-lane road at around 10:00 pm but was not doing so in the well-lit crosswalk approximately 100 feet away. Instead, she attempted to cross a partially lit portion of the road, which may have contributed to the accident. Was Ms. Helzberg partially liable because she was not following pedestrian laws? In personal injury cases, this is commonly referred to as contributory negligence.

With all of this in mind, who was responsible for Ms. Herzberg’s death?

What the Investigation Revealed

Lengthy, in-depth investigations by police and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that there was no basis for criminal liability on Uber’s part, so they would not face criminal charges. Rather, the investigations concluded that human error was the primary cause of this accident.

It was also revealed that the car’s emergency safety driver was streaming a TV show on her phone when the accident occurred. The reason she was there in the first place–her job, essentially–was to be prepared to take control of the car if a problem arose. Not only did the investigation show she was looking at her phone for several seconds just before the impact, but the NTSB reported that, “on this trip, the safety driver spent 34% of the time looking at her cell phone while streaming a TV show.” The NTSB further explained that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the operator to monitor her surroundings “because she was visually distracted throughout the trip by her personal cell phone.”

The Challenges Surrounding Self-Driving Car Cases

As you can see, these are complicated cases for personal injury attorneys. Who’s the responsible party? Who does the victim or victim family’s file a claim against? We’re still in the early stages of self-driving car law, so each case must be considered individually. In this incident, though Uber avoided criminal charges, the company did pay Ms. Helzberg’s family an undisclosed settlement, thereby assuming some responsibility–even if it was not criminal responsibility.

And the NTSB was critical of Uber’s “inadequate safety risk assessment procedures” and “ineffective oversight of vehicle operators,” claiming that they were contributing factors in the crash. Authorities in Arizona suspended Uber’s ability to test self-driving cars on the state’s public roads.

As for the emergency safety driver, Ms. Vasquez was charged by a grand jury with one count of negligent homicide, to which she pleaded not guilty. She’s awaiting trial set for February.

Interestingly, the NTSB also found that the vehicle’s automatic systems failed to identify Ms. Herzberg and her bike as an imminent collision danger in the manner it should have. Also, an Uber employee warned management that the vehicles were not safe and routinely involved in accidents.

Self-Driving Cars and Personal Injury Claims

As you’ve probably determined, personal injury claims related to self-driving cars are far from black and white. There are quite a few factors to consider when filing a personal injury claim if you’ve been the victim of a self-driving vehicle accident in Washington, DC, or Maryland, and that’s why you need the skilled personal injury attorneys of The Lapidus Law Firm on your side.

These cases require intensive investigation and plenty of attention to detail, and that’s precisely what your case will receive from our lawyers. Call us at (202) 785-5111 or (301) 852-7500 to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation, where we’ll go over the details of your case. If we take it on, you can feel confident knowing we’ll leave no stone unturned while we work toward the goal of getting you a fair, reasonable settlement.

We’re committed to making justice work for you.

Written by Larry Lapidus

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