The question of drone liability is something that comes up, from time to time, in discussions with clients and in casual conversation. The conventional wisdom one hears is that the unmanned systems and autonomous vehicles industry will never really take off until new laws have been enacted addressing liability when a vehicle causes injury to persons or property.
But is that really true? Probably, not. At least, not in the United States.
The fact is that the common law in the United States is amply well-suited to addressing unmanned systems liability issues, and that no major legislation is likely to be required in order for the industry to flourish. We already have a system of laws governing automobile accident liability on the ground, and aircraft accident liability in the air. The distinctions vis a vis unmanned systems and autonomous vehicles are not legal, but factual
Liability for accidents, and injuries arising from accidents, breaks down into two basic categories: operational negligence and products liability. Operational negligence is easy enough to understand: You run a red light and cause an accident, chances are (absent some extraordinary, intervening event) that you are liable for any damages.
It doesn’t matter if you lack sufficient experience and training. The law implies a duty to act in a manner consistent with that of a reasonable driver of ordinary skill.
On the other hand, products liability arises when a defect in the vehicle causes an injury. If the defect existed when the vehicle left the factory, or at the time of sale, then the seller or manufacturer can be held strictly liable in tort for any injuries caused by the defect. What constitutes a defect is a fact-sensitive question, but in general a product is defective if the risk is something that cannot be managed or foreseen by the operator, and is disproportionate to the product’s utility (or social utility).
That is why, for example, dangerous products with relatively little social utility, such as lawn darts (I’m showing my age!), can no longer be found on the market, while dangerous products with a great degree of utility, like chainsaws and farming combines, remain on the market.
Extreme events in products liability usually arise when a product having a high social utility, like a car, has a defect that makes it unreasonably dangerous to use. The GM ignition switch fiasco comes to mind as a recent example (although GM was able to avoid liability in that case due to the structured bankruptcy orchestrated by the government).
Other issues can come into play in products liability. For example, even if an aircraft is decades old the manufacturer can’t just ignore an airworthiness directive from the FAA regarding a known condition that might cause loss of control of the aircraft. But a manufacturer is not liable for defects in aftermarket parts and accessories that are incorporated into a vehicle after it is sold.
Among the manufacturer’s defenses to a products liability claim will be any facts suggesting negligence by the user. For example, if a product is used for a purpose for which it was not intended to be used, or the user failed to exercise reasonable care, the manufacturer might be off the hook. Thus, facts surrounding the operator/machine interface are often an issue in such disputes.
One can easily imagine how these principles will apply to drone liability. Questions will arise on how to sort out the standards for reasonableness of operator skill and risk/utility. But insurers, judges, juries and expert witnesses will be the primary drivers behind these determinations, not legislatures.