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Injuries caused by semi-autonomous vehicles: Whom to sue

If a driverless car that's operating under its own direction gets into an accident, who is responsible: the human owner, the car company, the dealership or the software developer?

While the ethical riddle posed to illustrate the choice is dramatic, giving the computerized car a choice between running down helpless pedestrians or driving off the road and likely killing its equally helpless passengers, the legal dilemma is becoming more of a reality all of the time.

More and more cars contain automation that puts the car, not the driver, in control of at least part of the driving process. Some car contain technology that assures the driver it will stop on time to avoid a rear-end accident or hitting a pedestrian even if the driver is momentarily distracted. Other vehicles are now "self-parking." That means that more people are getting comfortable with the idea of taking their hands off the wheel and letting the car do the driving.

While there aren't any fully automated vehicles on the road as of yet, companies like Google, Lyft and Uber are already moving into the driverless market and the government is already trying to plan for a future with driverless vehicles in it.

Some legal minds think that there will be a shift in the law that will focus on blaming the automotive industry and all its components for accidents involving fully-autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles instead of blaming the human owner of the car. There's already a study by a legal authority on autonomous vehicles that seeks to address those questions for lawmakers in preparation for times to come.

In the meantime, until the laws develop, cases involving accidents with cars that have semi-autonomous features will probably have to focus both on the human driver's negligence and the product's defective and dangerous design.

Because of the potentially complicated issues with product liability laws, if you're injured by a vehicle with an automatic stopping feature that fails or an automatic parking feature that misjudges the distance, contact a product liability attorney for advice.

Source: The Washington Post, "When driverless cars crash, who gets the blame and pays the damages?," Feb. 25, 2017

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