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Who’s at Fault for Self-Driving Car Accidents?


Self-driving cars have been hitting the road in California during controlled tests for several years. Car manufacturer Tesla advertises itself as the cutting edge in self-driving technology and backed this up at the end of 2022 when it released its Full Self-Driving (FSD) Beta to all owners. 

The problem with the cutting edge is that sometimes people get hurt. Just hours after FSD was opened to all drivers in December, a Tesla caused an eight-car pileup on a California highway. Nine people were injured, including one child who was hospitalized. When police arrived on the scene, the driver informed them that the car’s FSD feature hit the brakes for no reason, leading to the crash. 

This type of accident will only get more common as Teslas with FSD technology and other self-driving cars become accessible to the public. It raises an important question: Who’s liable for the accident when an autonomous car crashes?

That is a question that is still difficult to answer. This technology is too new for there to be significant legislation or case law on the books. However, legislators and courts are working to address the problem. Here’s what you need to know about why liability around autonomous vehicles is so murky and what you can do if you’re injured in a crash caused by a self-driving car.

The Complications of Liability Surrounding Self-Driving Cars

Liability is the legal responsibility for harm caused by negligence or recklessness. In traditional car accidents, liability is often assigned to one or more people directly involved in the crash. For example, someone who ignores a red light or drives drunk is likely to be considered liable for the harm caused if they crash. 

This is complicated by the existence of self-driving technology. Manufacturers advertise these cars as being able to drive themselves. They often imply that the driver does not need to do anything to get the vehicle safely to its destination. However, when driving Tesla’s FSD program and similar cars with “autopilot” features, drivers are explicitly warned that they must remain engaged with the driving process to take control of the vehicle in an emergency. 

These are conflicting messages – drivers are often unsure whether they are supposed to be in control of the car or not. This confusion extends to liability, too. If a driver is not actively controlling a vehicle, are they responsible for its actions? What if the manufacturer advertises it as being able to drive itself without interference? If the driver isn’t liable, who is? This is just a fraction of the legal questions resulting from autonomous vehicle accidents.

Potential Liable Parties in Self-Driving Car Accidents

As courts attempt to determine liability in cases like the Tesla FSD pileup, it has become clear that liability will vary on a case-by-case basis. For example, there is a significant difference between a Tesla “ghost braking” on a clear highway on a sunny day and someone failing to prevent an autonomous car accident because they were drunk behind the wheel. Depending on the circumstances, the court may find any of the following parties at least partially liable for an autonomous car accident:

  • Drivers: If the car’s driver is not paying attention to the road, they will likely be found at least partially liable until FSD and other autopilot programs are better tested in real-world situations. 
  • Other Road Users: As in other types of accidents, pedestrians and motorists might be partially liable for an accident if they acted erratically and there was no way to respond in time to avoid a crash. 
  • Municipalities: Cities, counties, and states are responsible for maintaining the safety of their roads. If a road is not well-labeled, traffic signals are missing, or there is damage to the road that causes an accident, the municipality responsible for the infrastructure could be liable. 
  • Manufacturers: Finally, and most importantly, car manufacturers could be found partly liable for many of these crashes. As these manufacturers are responsible for the programming that controls these vehicles, they may be liable for the harm they cause in accidents. 

How to File Claims Regarding Self-Driving Car Accidents

Until legislation and precedent catch up to autonomous vehicle technology, self-driving car accidents will likely remain highly complex. However, crashes that cause serious harm will continue to occur anyway. If you’ve been harmed in an accident involving a driverless vehicle, you deserve compensation for your injuries, even if liability is complicated. Here’s what you can do to pursue justice:

  • Collect information about the accident. Exchange insurance information and names with the other driver. Take pictures of the damage caused by the crash and any visible injuries you may have. Write down your account of the accident immediately and have any passengers in your vehicle do the same. 
  • Report your accident to your insurance company as soon as you can. Informing your insurance right away maximizes the likelihood of receiving a favorable settlement.
  • Get medical care even for minor injuries. Immediate medical care can help prevent supposedly minor injuries from turning into severe problems by identifying hidden issues like organ damage and brain bleeds.
  • Contact a skilled personal injury attorney. Any time you’re injured in a car accident, it’s in your best interest to discuss your case with a qualified lawyer. This is especially true in complex autonomous car accidents. 

At Ellis Helm, APC, we have decades of combined experience representing clients in even the most complicated personal injury cases. We have the resources, skills, and knowledge to help you pursue compensation for your injuries after a self-driving car accident. Reach out to our Temecula car accident lawyers to learn more about how we can help you file your claim and receive fair compensation for your losses.