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Is Tesla liable for the most recent self-driving car accident?

The tragic death of a 40-year-old Ohio man who was killed when his self-driving Tesla car slammed into a truck on a Florida highway wasn't just news for residents here in Florida. This story grabbed national attention as it was "believed to be the first deadly crash in which an American driver was relying on self-driving technology to steer, accelerate and brake the vehicle," explained a USA Today article.

Though many suspected the vehicle's autopilot system was faulty, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that this was not the case. Now, many are left wondering if the victim's family will seek compensation through a wrongful death lawsuit.

Do they have grounds for a claim?

Though it's not clear at this time whether the victim's family will pursue legal action against Tesla, Inc., this case does beg the question: Do they have grounds for a wrongful death claim?

Typically, wrongful death claims associated with products liability cases depend heavily on whether or not a victim's death was the direct result of a product defect. However, in this case, the NHTSA concluded that the self-driving car's system did not appear to be malfunctioning prior to the crash. In fact, the report indicates that the system delivered "six audible warnings" to the driver, asking him to hold the steering wheel.

Will contributory negligence play a role?

It's worth noting that product defects are not the only factors in wrongful death cases such as this. Negligence can also be a factor and grounds for a personal injury claim.

In this case, however, contributory negligence may work against the driver when considering he:

  • Was travelling faster than the posted speed limit at the time of the accident
  • Appears to have ignored warnings to retake control of the vehicle
  • May have seen the truck approaching and had time to avoid the crash

While it might appear as if the driver was completely at fault for the crash, Tesla, Inc., and even the truck driver may be partially at fault. As the USA Today article explains, CEO Elon Musk believes recent software upgrades might have prevented the crash. In addition, witnesses say, "the truck driver had sufficient time to avoid the collision."

Cases like this require careful review

Cases like this, while incredibly tragic, highlight the complexity of some wrongful death cases. Liability can sometimes be difficult to place and it may not always be clear whether negligence was a factor. An attorney proficient in personal injury law, however, has the skills necessary to thoroughly review a case like this and determine whether or not it has merit.

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