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Another "Autopilot" Crash a Reason to Revisit Negligence Questions

The promise of self-driving cars is both incredibly audacious and hopeful. No more “wasted” time spent driving. Faster, more efficient commutes. A drastic reduction in accidents.

Someday – perhaps even someday soon – that future may come. Right now, though, we are at the beginning of a transition period, and there are still big hiccups and big questions. One of those “hiccups” occurred recently when another Autopilot-enabled Tesla vehicle crashed in California.

Here is what happened:

On Monday, January 22, 2018, in Culver City, a Tesla Model S crashed into the back of a parked fire truck on Interstate 405 traveling at what witnesses estimate was about 65 mph. Allegedly, the driver of the Model S had Tesla’s Autopilot engaged when the collision occurred. Miraculously, no one was injured, but the NTSB is currently investigating the incident to determine what caused it.

Should the driver be held responsible? What about Tesla’s responsibility in creating Autopilot?

In the coming years, these types of questions about negligence in car crashes involving autonomous vehicles will come up more and more, so it’s important to think about them now to get a sense of how claims might be won or lost.

To explore who might be negligent in this type of case, we’ll take a look at a similar crash you might remember from a few years ago right here in Florida.

That accident also involved a Tesla Model S driver using Autopilot, and it was also investigated by the NTSB. However, the outcome of that crash was far more tragic, leading to the death of the Model S driver after he plowed into a truck at 74 mph.

What did the investigators find?

Who (and What) Were to Blame in Joshua Brown’s Tragic Autopilot Death

NTSB investigators looked into Joshua Brown’s May 2016 fatal crash for about a year and a half before issuing their final findings, and they offer some interesting insight into how these types of cases might be litigated and who could potentially be liable for damages.

Ultimately, it was found that fault could be divided up amongst three parties:

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Joshua Brown. Fairly early on in the investigation (in January of 2017), the NTSB determined that Mr. Brown caused the crash – and, thus, his own death – because he was supposed to be monitoring the driving of his vehicle. Not only does the driver’s manual of the Model S state this, Tesla also includes a disclaimer that must be agreed to by the driver before they can engage Autopilot.

According to NTSB investigators, Brown should have paid more attention to the operation of the vehicle, and it was his lack of attention that ultimately led to the accident.

Semitrailer driver. Later, when their final findings were released, the investigators provided a more complex picture of who was at fault, saying that the driver of the truck that Brown hit was also partially responsible.

Why? Because they failed to yield. Brown was in the lane first and only hit the truck because it pulled out into his lane in front of him.

Tesla. While initial findings largely absolved Tesla of any responsibility in the accident, the final report dropped something of a bombshell by essentially rebuking the automaker for creating an autonomous system that could be abused in the first place. They specifically cited the “lack of sufficient system controls” present in Autopilot.

Autopilot Accidents and Comparative Negligence in Florida

These final findings are particularly interesting for accidents that occur here in Florida because of how our comparative fault laws work. Essentially, it is potentially possible for someone to receive compensation for serious injuries incurred in a crash even if they are deemed partially responsible for that crash.

In the incident described above, from 2016, it would have been easy to simply assume that Joshua Brown was completely at fault, and in fact, the NTSB more or less did just that when they released their initial report.

However, their final findings paint a different picture that could provide a road map in these types of cases that allows victims or (as in the case of Mr. Brown) loved ones to receive compensation for the partial responsibility of other parties.

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It is a lesson that fault and blame should never be immediately assumed, even if the initial findings seem to point in one direction. If you are hurt in any kind of car crash, do not simply assume that you are to blame.

Reach out to an experienced Florida personal injury attorney who will be able to use their in-depth knowledge of our state’s injury laws to rationally look at the facts and provide you with an assessment based on research and evidence.

About the Author:

Since 1994, seasoned litigation and trial lawyer Anthony B. White has helped thousands of accident victims seek damages due to injuries sustained as a result of another party’s negligence. Included in America’s Registry of Outstanding Professionals and selected to the 2012, 2013, and 2014 editions of Florida Super Lawyers, Mr. White specializes in car accidents, insurance disputes, wrongful death, product liability, and medical malpractice cases. He is a longstanding member of the Florida Justice Association and the American Association for Justice and currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Broward County Justice Association.

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