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Self-Driving Vehicles and Federal Preemption

Self-Driving Vehicles and Federal Preemption

Yesterday, Tesla confirmed that the government is actively investigating the first reported fatality involving the company’s “auto-pilot” technology.  The fatal crash occurred on May 6 in Williston, Florida, claiming the life of former Navy SEAL Joshua Brown.  According to Tesla’s public statement about the crash, the car’s autopilot feature failed to notice the white side of a tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky.  As a result, the software failed to apply the brakes, and the car’s windshield struck the bottom of the trailer.

As we have previously written, “autonomous” or “self-driving” automotive technology has the capability to save lives, if implemented correctly.  A self-driving vehicle should theoretically perform better than a human driver if it operates according to a computer code that properly accounts for the surrounding environment and changes in traffic conditions.  However, when technology reaches the market before it is ready, software bugs and design flaws may go unnoticed until it is too late.  We’ve all had a computer crash unexpectedly.  Now imagine if that computer was supposed to be making the call as to when to apply the brakes during rush hour.

Well-developed negligence and strict products liability law already provide the best solution for those instances where self-driving technology fails and results in injury or death.  Under a negligence or strict liability theory, the manufacturer would be held accountable if a design defect caused or contributed to the crash.  The determination as to whether the software had a defect would, in turn, be made in the same manner that these kinds of determinations have always been made—by a civil jury.

Time and time again, the civil jury system has proven the best way to get to the truth in product defect cases.  Each and every automotive crash is unique, and the determination as to whether a product had a defect that played into a crash must necessarily be made only after carefully reviewing the circumstances of that particular crash.  The jury system allows for this type of case-by-case analysis to be conducted in open court, with each party having a fair opportunity to present their claims and defenses.

Unfortunately, auto manufacturers are now actively lobbying federal lawmakers to strip citizens of their rights to a jury trial should they find themselves in the same predicament as the Brown family.  Their weapon of choice in this regard is federal preemption.  Specifically, they are seeking what could be an often-times insurmountable defense whereby regulations implemented by Washington bureaucrats would forever trump the right of any individual citizen involved in a self-driving vehicle crash from seeking relief in the courts.

Earlier this year, the US Department of Transportation announced that it was working on guidance with respect to self-driving vehicle technology.  Since then, both the DOT and the Senate have held hearings in Washington to address the issue.  The DOT guidance is supposed to be released sometime this month.

Stay tuned.  We will continue to monitor and provide updates on the key legal and regulatory battles with respect to self-driving vehicles as they unfold.

E-Cig Battery Fire Lawsuits on the Rise

E-Cig Battery Fire Lawsuits on the Rise

25 years ago litigation involving exploding BIC lighters was fought against BIC by consumer justice lawyers across the country. The BIC lighters, which were alleged to randomly explode, were the subject of numerous cases where children and consumers were horribly burned. The litigation was particularly ugly, with brutal discovery fights and allegations of discovery abuse. […]

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Hoverboard Safety Concerns Grow as Problems Mount

Hoverboard Safety Concerns Grow as Problems Mount

Hoverboards — self-balancing, two-wheeled electric boards that look like a skateboard — were the fad of the 2015 holiday season. But safety officials and consumer groups are warning the public to think twice before purchasing the popular gadgets. In recent weeks there have been numerous reports of the boards sparking fires, including one in Boca […]

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SCOTUS Slams the Courthouse Doors on Another Consumer Class Action in Latest Arbitration Decision

SCOTUS Slams the Courthouse Doors on Another Consumer Class Action in Latest Arbitration Decision

Mandatory arbitration provisions, contractual clauses which prevent consumers from exercising their right to a jury trial or pursuing claims on a class basis, have become an unavoidable trap over the last several years.  Powerful corporations bury these provisions in their form adhesion contracts, which consumers must agree to in order to obtain most of the […]

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The Takata Airbag Defect: What Florida’s Consumer Advocates Need to Know. – William C. Ourand, Esq.

The Takata Airbag Defect: What Florida’s Consumer Advocates Need to Know. – William C. Ourand, Esq.

Florida is the “epicenter” of the Takata airbag debacle which has resulted in the largest automotive recall in U.S. history. Unfortunately, all signs indicate that the severe injuries and deaths will continue into the foreseeable future. The roadways remain flooded with millions of vehicles which may still be equipped with the potentially lethal airbags. Moreover, […]

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NHTSA Announces Expanded Takata Airbag Recalls

NHTSA Announces Expanded Takata Airbag Recalls

This afternoon Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced an expansion of the number of vehicles recalled for defective airbags. Previously, approximately 16 million vehicles were voluntarily recalled by manufacturers due to defective Takata airbags. Today, Foxx and the NHTSA announced that Takata agreed to expand the recall to include almost 34 million vehicles and admit […]

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