Driverless Cars: The Impact to Oregon’s Legal System?

For the following multiple-choice question, “Do you think there are too many lawsuits, or too few, or just right?” a majority of people answer, “Too many.”  With driverless vehicles, there would be fewer injuries, resulting in fewer Oregon personal injury claims, fewer DUIs, fewer suspended licenses, fewer auto related crimes, and fewer traffic tickets mainly in bigger cities such as Portland, Corvallis, and Albany.  With that change you would see the burden on the court system lessened, the revenue from criminal fees decreased, and many Oregon injury attorneys will be forced to shift the focus of their practices.  The world of criminal law and personal injury law would change markedly. 

The question of who might be responsible for a traffic ticket already hovers around the question of driverless cars.  In a car accident case, it’s no longer a simple matter of determining which driver is at fault for causing a collision – again, keep in mind that there would be fewer auto accident cases. 

In Oregon, personal injury due to auto accidents would likely fall due to fewer collisions. Here are examples of common car accident injuries. And when collisions do occur, the “who is responsible” question would become more complicated.  Was the accident a “human operated car vs. a driverless car” or was the accident a “driverless car vs. another driverless car?”   The Insurance Information Institute has issued this cautious statement:  “It is possible some liability will shift to manufacturers.”

A Google-made car recently was found responsible for causing an accident.  In this instance, Google would be the legal responsible party for any injuries caused.  Currently, the powerful insurance companies have the advantage over an everyday member of the community injured in an auto accident.  Would a larger and more powerful company such as Google create a larger disparity of power between the injured community member and the at fault party?

To pursue a claim against a manufacturer like Google, attorneys would have to shift from a simple negligence claim to what is known as a defective product claim, or product liability claim.  These types of claims focus on the product and how it was designed or manufactured.  Cases like these require experts with specific knowledge to inform attorneys on whether or not there is a claim, and later at trial to tell a jury what went wrong. 

As you can imagine, hiring an expert isn’t cheap.  Expert costs in product liability cases can easily exceed $100,000.  Because these costs are not paid for by the at-fault party, these costs come directly out of the pocket of the person that has been injured.  As a result, the only financially viable cases for injured community members to pursue are product liability cases that have caused significant harm or harm to many people.  This increases the power disparity between the at-fault party and the injured person. 

How will someone with a broken arm or lost wages for a year find an attorney to help them when it costs so much?  If there has been a defect, let’s say, with the computer programming, it will have likely caused numerous injuries.  In these cases, personal injury attorneys often work together to pool resources to pursue a lawsuit against large corporations with endless pots of money at their disposal.[1] 

Even with this dynamic, personal injury lawsuits will likely decline due to fewer collisions – this is a good thing.  Courts today are backlogged with cases; driverless vehicles might mitigate this.  Injury attorneys might wind up concentrating on writing contracts. Criminal attorneys specializing in DUI or other auto related offenses would face the same problem.  Likewise, in medicine the same might hold true in the case of physical therapists, radiologists, chiropractors, etc. – statistics from the State of New York suggest that average spending for hospital care per auto collision is around $1,200.

Moreover, as we look deeper, legal changes and decreased injuries could result in a cost savings in some areas but decreased revenue in others.  For instance, while the courts may need fewer resources, the criminal fines account would see a decrease in revenue.  During the 2011-13, criminal fines accounted for more than $126 million of Oregon’s revenue.

There is no question that driverless cars would change our legal dynamic.  There will likely be a hydraulic effect as attorneys, courts, the police, cities, and counties adjust to the changes. 


[1] However, it is not unheard of for a personal injury attorney to go bankrupt fighting a big corporation in the pursuit of justice.  


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