As we continue into a world in which humans and robots work more frequently side by side, there becomes a whole new spectrum of legally grey. Accidents are an unavoidable fact of life; people make mistakes which can cause someone an injury.

In the workplace, this presents opportunities for the victim to claim compensation for their injuries, with a clearly definable target they are trying to claim compensation from. Either the company was at fault for not providing adequate health and safety, or the individual who caused the injury wasn’t adhering to company policy. But what about when it’s not an individual who caused you harm, but rather a robot?

Manufacturer liability

Robots have been utilised in the manufacturing industry for decades, and the case of Robert Williams, a factory worker at a Ford factory in Michigan who was killed by a robot in 1979, shows there’s clear indication that the robot’s manufacturer has historically been held liable.

Williams was the first person who is recorded to have being killed by a robot. Struck on the head by an industrial robot arm while retrieving parts from the space the robot occupied, Williams was killed instantly. Williams reportedly entered this dangerous space because the robot wasn’t operating properly, and was slow at retrieving the parts themselves. Williams’ family sued the manufacturers of the robot for $15 million, and were granted $10 million by a jury. While the courts did highlight that there simply wasn’t enough health and safety regulation about working with robots, Ford were not penalised for the death of their worker, despite the robot having no sensors or ways to detect a human being.

Technology has obviously moved on since the 70s though, and robots are now often fitted with sensors to detect humans. This presents an argument for the shift in liability, in the event of an accident, from the manufacturers of the robot to the software designers. With robots becoming increasingly intelligent, more responsibility is being bestowed onto them in the industrial sector. With this responsibility comes a greater expectation of the software they run on, particularly when they’re operating in close proximity to people.

The legal position

This is difficult legally, because the company has entrusted that the software is safe, and so could be considered responsible, but equally the software designers have declared the robot safe to the company. There needs to be more thorough stress testing of the robots prior to release, and clear intentions of their use from the purchaser or manufacturer of the robot, which need to be signed off as safe by the software team. This can help determine fault.

Certain industrial robots, which clearly do not have the intelligence to avoid accidentally harming humans, should be locked off behind barriers and cages. This shows appropriate safety precautions, and therefore if an employee was to cross into the dangerous space, they could be considered partly or fully liable for any accidents. It’s important not to discount human error as the cause for many accidents; you wouldn’t blame a vehicle for an accident if the individual was speeding, or not paying attention to the road.

A fear of the unknown, then, might be the root of some of these legal conundrums. As robots become more independent, it’s easy to become wary and dubious as to just how safe they are. Popular fiction is often depicting the rise of robots as an evil force, intent on causing harm to humanity. But this isn’t fiction, and where Will Smith waged war on rebellious, free-thinking robots, intent on enslaving humanity, real robots run off carefully considered coding that binds them to certain practices. If a robot acts untoward, then it’s unlikely to be anything more than an oversight in the software, which would give obvious cause for where the blame lay.

It’s not always easy to identify who is to blame in the event of an accident with a robot and it’s important to consider all of the above factors. You must consider amongst other matters: is the robot intelligent enough to work by humans? if not, is it working in its own enclosed space? Were you made aware of the limitations of the robot’s intelligence? The list can be very detailed to ensure the safety of your working environment.