Uber’s Autonomous Vehicle Death Case Settlement

This year, Uber has become the first peer-to-peer ride-sharing company to be sued and to have settled for a death involving an autonomous vehicle. Uber’s self-driving vehicle struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year old Arizona woman, as she attempted to cross a street with her bicycle. While the autonomous vehicle had the redundant safety feature of a human “safety driver”, the driver was shown to have been distracted by their phone with a riveting episode of “The Voice” at the time of the accident. 

This case opens up the discussion for liability in crashes involving autonomous vehicles. Does the driver bear the full liability? The car’s manufacturer? Uber? In crashes involving Uber drivers, Uber treats drivers as independent contractors and extends coverage only as far as a $1 million commercial auto insurance policy. In this case, the car was equipped with incredibly advanced, military-grade radar, LIDAR, and a variable cornucopia of other sensors and fail-safes all designed to detect something like a human being in the car’s path and which are designed to stop the vehicle well before a collision could ever take place. This instance held the perfect storm for the car to proceed at a speed and direction that would take it through Ms. Herzberg in a manner that would lead to her untimely death. First, the safety driver is meant to be just that, in place to prevent un-safe happenings within the vehicle. This driver found the autonomous vehicle’s motion to be much more conducive to mobile entertainment and instead focused their complete attention on their 4-inch mobile phone’s screen. Second, the automatic braking system the sensors would use to stop the vehicle was somehow disengaged at the time of the incident. Finally, Ms. Herzberg jaywalked across a busy multi-lane street, at night, and far from any crosswalk, sidewalk, or other pedestrian safety measure.   

As a result of the crash, the State of Arizona has stripped Uber of their ability to test autonomous vehicles in the State. Since enacting an Executive Order in 2015 for supporting the testing of self-driving vehicles, Arizona has been a leader as a proving ground for companies to test autonomous vehicles within the State and has attracted Uber, Waymo, Lyft, Intel, General Motors, and others to set up operations to do just that. In reaction, Uber also ceased self-driving testing at sites in other states, as well. 

With Jacksonville’s Transportation Authority rolling out plans for turning downtown Jacksonville into a “test-track” for autonomous vehicles and a so-called “smart” city, we must look at instances where self-driving vehicles have been the cause for injury and death and examine where liabilities will lie if future instances occur. Farah and Farah remains at the forefront for research and planning in litigation involving all types of vehicular accident injury, including staying well abreast of the rapid advancement of the self-driving initiatives currently underway in the City of Jacksonville and elsewhere. If you’re involved in a crash that wasn’t your fault, we understand how to navigate the complicated insurance process to get you the compensation you need to be whole again. We pride ourselves on taking the pressure off of you and managing the entire process so you can focus on getting better. Some of the things we’re really good at include making sure your insurance company abides by the terms of your policy and gives you the fair market value for your vehicle, negotiating medical bills to ensure you have everything you need to get you well again, and standing up to insurance companies that want to short-change the claim. Our attorneys stay ahead of the game and current on new events such as autonomous vehicles entering the roadway so that when the time comes for us to help you, we have all the information we need to fight on your behalf.

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