Why proposed autonomous vehicle legislation could deny justice to accident victims

By Darrell Cochran Law

When a self-driving car causes serious injury in an accident, who is ultimately responsible? A bill proposed in the Washington State legislature leaves that question without a clear cut answer. And that could leave accident victims – especially those without significant financial resources – from getting the help they need to heal and recover.

SB 5594 would pave the way for companies to operate fully autonomous vehicles (AV’s) on Washington’s roadways. The legislation imposes some regulations and oversight, but it fails to address key concerns, most notably affordable access to medical care for accident victims in the event of a failure that causes injury or death.

Our team member Alex Dietz/Senior Associate, recently testified on behalf of the Washington State Association for Justice against the bill in a high profile hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee watched closely by a number of stakeholders from the auto and insurance industries.

VIDEO: Alex Dietz testimony to Washington State legislature Transportation Committee

“It’s fundamentally an issue of access to justice,” says Dietz. “The AV industry is pre-emptively trying to immunize itself from any liability, and many ordinary Washingtonians would suffer.”

The proposed legislation puts the responsibility for a crash on the last entity to control the software program that “drives” an AV. The responsible party could ultimately be some company in a distant country that could easily avoid any enforceable liability to an accident victim.

According to Dietz, determining the cause of an AV accident could be complex, requiring significant expert investigation and analysis of the software programs that power AVs. That would be prohibitively expensive. Many accident victims and their attorneys would not be able to afford the cost of those investigations, denying many accident victims their right to recover for medical expenses and harms resulting from an accident.

It’s not just the drivers of an AV involved in an accident that could be denied justice, according to Dietz. “No one drives in isolation,” he says. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers could all be left without the support they have a right to.

“We are absolutely not opposed to autonomous vehicles,” Dietz says. But with the technology to widely deploy autonomous vehicles on Washington’s roads still some years away, Dietz argues there’s no reason to rush haphazardly into implementing new legislation that aims primarily to protect the AV industry from any liability. “We have time to think through all of the implications and get this right,” Dietz says.

The bill did not pass out of the Senate before the legislative deadline this session, so will not move forward this session. But supporters are expected to continue their fight to pass the same or similar measure next year.