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By: Wes Jackson
On September 8, 2020, a federal court in California heard arguments as to whether it will exercise jurisdiction over a wrongful death lawsuit against Tesla. While the case presents an interesting forum non conveniens issue, it is also a harbinger of the coming transformation of auto accident litigation: as more vehicles become autonomous, what were once run-of-the-mill negligence cases will become full-blown corporate products liability claims.
The accident at issue occurred on April 29, 2018, when the driver of a Tesla Model X operating in Autopilot mode fell asleep and crashed into some motorcycles, pedestrians, and a van parked along an expressway near Tokyo, Japan. A 44-year-old husband and father died in the accident. His survivors brought suit against Tesla in the Northern District of California, arguing that the manufacturer sold cars operating on substandard, untested autonomous technology.
The arguments on September 8, 2020 consisted of standard forum non conveniens fare—weighing the benefit of having direct access to Tesla employees with knowledge of the car’s technology in California against the benefit of having access to witnesses and physical evidence of the actual crash in Tokyo. But the case also foreshadows a major change in how auto accidents are litigated. If, as we expect, the multiple split-second decisions involved in driving a vehicle are outsourced from the individual driver to a manufacturer’s autonomous driving system, liability will gradually shift from the driver to the manufacturer.
One consequence of this shift might be that the driver’s insurer is no longer the deepest pocket in play in auto wreck cases, encouraging plaintiffs to turn their attention to products liability claims against the manufacturer. Such a shift could also bring about major changes in the automobile insurance industry itself. These changes are likely to unfold in the coming years, as autonomous vehicles become more prevalent.
If you have any questions about this post or transportation liability, please contact the author, attorney Wes Jackson, at [email protected].