Liability in Uber Deadly Crash May Turn on Victim’s Steps

March 22, 2018

Uber Technologies Inc.’s potential liability for the death of a woman hit and killed in Arizona by a self-driving car may be limited after a video showed she suddenly walked into traffic on a dark street.

The woman’s family could sue, claiming Uber’s self-driving technology was to blame. While any jury would likely weigh her actions, under Arizona law, the company may still have to pay, according to David Logan, a law professor in Rhode Island.

The state required defendants – even those found minimally at fault – to pay a commensurate percentage of the damages, Logan said. The family’s lawyers could argue that the driverless car was still responsible because “a negligent design didn’t enable the car to do what a driver could have,” he said.

The fatal crash is likely to add pressure on state and federal lawmakers, who need to play catch-up on rules and regulations for the testing and any ultimate deployment of self-driving vehicles on the nation’s roadways. Lobbyists for the automakers and tech giants developing driverless cars and safety advocates will come head-to-head as the next generation of laws are created.

Federal oversight is unlikely, particularly given the stalemate in Congress over other initiatives, so a “patchwork” of state laws will be the most likely result, Logan said.

In the death of the woman in Arizona, her actions would lower any possible damages Uber might have to pay, but the company could still lose, Logan said.

Under Arizona law, a defendant found even minimally at fault would have to pay that percentage of damages – if it found Uber 1 percent responsible, the company would be on the hook for 1 percent of any jury award, he said. How high a percentage would depend on the facts of the case, following the complete investigation.

In many other states, if the plaintiff is found more than 50 percent responsible, the defendant doesn’t have to pay anything, he said.

It’s unlikely that Uber would escape responsibility no matter what the pedestrian did, said attorney Kevin Dean, who specializes in auto product defect claims.

“In this situation, the car never stopped,” he said. “The car never took evasive maneuvers.”

That could leave Uber potentially liable, he said, as well as other possible defendants in such cases including software developers, satellite companies, or car manufacturers.

Any claim over the death is likely to be settled, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. Uber executives “don’t want to litigate this, given all the bad publicity that flows from it,” he said.

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