On February 24, 2017, a Washington judge sentenced Paul M. Skinner to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine for “reckless endangerment” arising from the use of a personal drone. Skinner lost control of the two-pound drone during Seattle’s 2015 Pride Parade when the drone hit a building, resulting in the injury of two bystanders. One of those bystanders, an adult woman, suffered a concussion. The other, an adult male, suffered a minor bruise. Both took the stand at trial. In imposing the sentence, the judge noted the incident was an accident. A restitution hearing for the woman’s medical costs is scheduled on May 25. Skinner has appealed the conviction, though he must still take a certified class on drone safety under the sentence.
Increased drone use — among individuals as well as businesses engaged in risk management — has long raised questions of civil liability. Some critics have also cited privacy concerns that could give rise to civil and criminal penalties. But instances of prosecution and civil claims have remained relatively low. In Skinner’s case, the city attorney sought 90 days in jail for the accident, citing a “serious public-safety issue that will only get worse.” It is unclear if Skinner’s prosecution is the one that proves the rules — or whether other operators will experience similar criminal punishment.
Skinner owns Vivid Aerial Ascent with his brother. The company uses drones to shoot events, from land surveys to sports games. Though it’s not known whether Skinner’s use was for personal or business purposes, the incident implicates civil liability, insurance, and risk management. Drone use has become common to shoot events that necessarily include a large number of people. If operators are automatically deemed to have committed reckless engagement by using drones over crowds, civil suits are sure to follow close behind.
The woman who suffered the concussion has reportedly retained an attorney. No civil suit has been filed against Skinner yet. As personal and professional drone use rises, so will the instances of litigation.