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Who Is Liable When Robots Cause Injury?

Craig McClellan

As technology continues to expand its reach on our lives, it is vital to look at what role it will play in the courtroom. Technology-related liability lawsuits are no longer limited to defective appliances that cause injuries or defective auto parts. Now, we have autonomous cars that can make decisions on the road (they became legal on California's roads in 2010), robotic surgeons who do surgeries in place of human doctors, and other examples of autonomous robots that can -- and do -- make mistakes.

Which raises the question: who is liable when robots cause injury? The manufacturer of the robot? The people who oversee the autonomous technology (such as a driver or doctor)? The robot's owner? The robot itself?

For the time being, most injury lawsuits have been brought against manufacturers of the autonomous technology under product liability law. For example, when a da Vinci surgical robot performed a hysterectomy incorrectly, causing significant injury to a patient, the patient sued the manufacturer, California company Intuitive Surgical. Yet, the doctors may also have been at fault, since they were controlling the robot. It may even be argued that the doctors did not have enough training in using the equipment, thus putting the hospital's practices into question.

The same liability issues may arise with autonomous cars. If an autonomous car makes the wrong decision in a traffic situation and causes an accident, who is liable? The manufacturer may be liable for programming the car improperly or for a product defect. The driver could also be held accountable for not overriding the car's operations.

As technology grows, so must the laws around the use of technology. Until statutes go into effect for autonomous technology, however, the courts -- and injured parties -- will continue to set the precedent and create the legal standards.

Source: i09, " Intuitive Surgical's Robot Surgeons Encounter Human Lawyers," Robert Langreth, Mar. 14, 2013