In March 2018, a driverless car operated by Uber — a Volvo — ran over a woman in Tempe, Arizona. The car was traveling over 40 miles per hour and there was no attempt to stop. The woman died of her injuries. See here. Uber has suspended its testing program and the governor of Arizona has banned Uber from operating autonomous cars on the state’s roads indefinitely.
As the tragedy demonstrates, there are continuing questions about the safety and wisdom of these vehicles. Driverless or autonomous vehicles are not yet on the road here Greenville and upstate South Carolina. But large companies like Google, Uber and Lyft are pushing hard and intensely to get approval for nationwide use of the vehicles and the attendant mapping technology.
There are many legal questions with respect to deaths like the one suffered by the Tempe woman. Among them are:
- Who is liable for the woman’s death?
- Who is liable for future injuries and deaths caused by autonomous cars?
- What is the appropriate legal theory of liability – negligence or product liability?
- Will strict liability apply?
Here are a few thoughts about autonomous vehicles here in Greenville and under South Carolina law.
Uber Will Likely Be Liable under Theory of Negligence
Based on the news reports (the actual evidence gathered might show a different set of facts), it appears that the Tempe woman stepped out into the road suddenly and at mid-block. That is, she was not at a crosswalk and she may not have been paying attention. Even if true, those facts would not necessarily get Uber “off the hook” under South Carolina law. Under South Carolina negligence law, a victim must prove duty, breach of duty, causation and injury/death. Here in Greenville, drivers have a duty to be watchful of any pedestrian who is near the road even if the pedestrian is not paying attention. Clearly, the Uber Volvo was not equipped or programmed to watch for pedestrians who might suddenly step into the road. Thus, it is probable that Uber breached its duty to be watchful and was, therefore, negligent.
Comparative Fault in SC Car Accidents
On the other hand, if the news reports are true, the Tempe woman was also at fault. In South Carolina, we have a modified comparative fault system. A plaintiff can still recover money damages against a wrongdoer, but any recovery is diminished by the percentage fault of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff is more than 50 percent at fault, then the plaintiff recovers nothing. So, while Uber was likely negligent, it may not be fully responsible for the woman’s damages. See S.C. Code § 15-38-15.
Automotive Product Liability Laws in South Carolina
Another theory of liability under South Carolina law is product liability. In general, a manufacturer cannot make and sell dangerous and/or defective products. Arguably, the self-driving Volvo was either inherently dangerous or defective. Here again, based on the news reports, Uber will likely be liable under theories of product liability. In addition, there may be other businesses at risk such as maybe Volvo, the developer of the software and the designers/makers of other aspects of the guidance system(s).