What Happens if a Self-Driving Car Hits a Pedestrian?

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The concept of a self-driving vehicle has been around for a while now, but as more of them hit the market, the question of driver responsibility in an accident comes up more often. When a car hits a pedestrian, the results are almost always related to driver error, and the injuries are often severe. However, if the vehicle is self-driving, do you blame the driver? The answer is complex, but if you suffered an injury in this type of accident, you would likely benefit from speaking to a personal injury attorney about the details of your case.

Automation Is a Developing Concept

Self-driving cars are not all built the same. You can find automated safety features on almost any newer model car produced by any manufacturer. Some common examples of vehicle automation technology include:

  • Anti-lock braking system: prevents brakes from locking up
  • Vehicle tracking system: used to track the vehicle’s location
  • Adaptive cruise control: can decelerate or accelerate a car to keep a safe distance from other drivers
  • Rear-view alarm: senses obstructive objects while backing up
  • Lane-change assist: monitors the perimeter of the vehicle and alerts the driver if someone is in the lane next to them

Each of these features enhances the safety of a vehicle. However, they still require the full attention and control of a driver.

Different Levels of Autonomy for Self-Driving Cars

Entirely autonomous cars are actually scarce and not currently in mass production. If the vehicle that hit you or your loved one was self-driving, you may want to consider the type of driver assistance in use and the level of vehicle autonomy. The Society of Automotive Engineers currently classifies vehicles under six categories of autonomy:

  1. Autonomy level 0 involves no driving automation, meaning the driver entirely controls the vehicle. This level encompasses most of the cars you see on the road every day.
  2. Autonomy level 1 is often seen in newer models with at least one automated safety feature, such as adaptive cruise control. The driver still monitors the surrounding area and is in control of the vehicle.
  3. Autonomy level 2 has more advanced automation. You see this type of automation in Tesla’s autopilot mode, where the car can steer, accelerate, and brake. The driver can still take over at any time.
  4. Autonomy level 3 provides more driving automation features, such as the ability to evaluate the surrounding environment and make decisions carefully. However, the driver will likely need to take control at some point and should remain alert in conditional driving mode.
  5. Autonomy level 4 offers high driving automation. These cars typically do not need human intervention if the vehicle needs to make a complex move. You mostly find this level in ridesharing vehicles because it works best in a city environment where speed limits are relatively low.
  6. Autonomy level 5 requires no driver interaction. This technology exists but is not currently on the market. A fully autonomous vehicle can do anything that a human can do. 

Nothing beyond level two is currently in mass production, and experts say it will be several years before this changes. Ultimately, the level of autonomy when a self-driving car collides with a pedestrian could affect the driver’s liability.

Determining Liability in a Self-Driving Car Accident

With so little legislation in place for self-driving cars on the road, determining responsibility in an accident requires a deeper understanding of the details surrounding each accident. For example, suppose the vehicle operated with a high level of autonomy at the time of the collision. In that case, it could be a case of product liability in which the manufacturer is responsible for a defect in the technology. Lower level autonomy requires an attentive driver, rendering the driver liable for an accident. Overall, there is no definitive way to determine who is at fault in an accident involving a pedestrian and a self-driving vehicle. However, you must also consider the potential for shared responsibility.

When Both Parties Share Responsibility for the Accident

As with all personal injury cases, pedestrians and drivers have a responsibility to act reasonably in public. Pedestrians must abide by applicable road laws, and any violation could implicate them in an accident. State laws for contributory or comparative negligence apply when both parties share responsibility.

Very few states subscribe to the contributory negligence rule. It states that the plaintiff is ineligible for compensation if the defense can prove that they contributed to the accident. However, in cases involving a car and a pedestrian, the contributory negligence rule only applies in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, and North Carolina.

Most states follow the rule of comparative negligence in one of its two forms. Comparative negligence allows the plaintiff to receive compensation even if they share fault. Each state subscribes to one of these two forms:

  1. Modified comparative negligence allows the plaintiff to recover a partial amount of the award or settlement as long as the defendant is more responsible. The threshold for eligibility could be 50% or 51%, depending on state law.
  2. Pure comparative negligence allows the plaintiff to recover a partial amount of the award or settlement whether they are primarily at fault or not.

How much compensation the plaintiff receives depends on their percentage of fault. After a complex evaluation, the judge or jury will assign a percentage of fault to both parties and determine the total value of the damages caused by the accident. Under comparative negligence, the plaintiff receives the amount of compensation after their percentage of fault is deducted. For example, if the jury finds the plaintiff 60% responsible and awards them $100,000, the plaintiff will receive $40,000 in a state following the pure comparative negligence rule. In a modified comparative negligence state, they would receive nothing.

Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney

Unfortunately, pedestrian accidents are common in the U.S. Given the vulnerable nature of pedestrians involved in an accident with an automobile, the injuries to the pedestrian are often substantial, sometimes even deadly. If you suffered an injury or lost a loved one because of a pedestrian-car accident involving a self-driving car, you should consider contacting a personal injury attorney for many reasons. The most important is the complex nature of a lawsuit involving a self-driving car.

Personal injury lawsuits require a determination of fault to receive compensation. For example, in a standard pedestrian car accident case, the driver is typically responsible for hitting a pedestrian. Still, fault is not always so obvious when the driver is behind the wheel of a car in self-driving mode. An attorney is better equipped to help you navigate the legal system and develop a strong claim with substantial evidence. Additionally, they actively protect your rights throughout the process.

If you suffered an injury because of a self-driving car, you should not suffer the financial consequences of another’s negligent actions. If you lost a loved one, you deserve compensation for the resulting economic and emotional losses. The Mike Morse Law Firm team is compassionate, dedicated, and experienced. We understand the stress this situation can cause and will work as quickly as possible to get to a favorable resolution for you. If you have any questions about the potential of your case, we are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Contact our offices or schedule a free case evaluation online.

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