The Trial Lawyer is the quarterly journal of The National Trial Lawyers Top 100 Trial Lawyers, Its issue for Summer 2017 features a foresightful article about future car crash litigation for personal injuries and wrongful death, ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: How trial lawyers heads are buried in the ground with respect to self-driving cars and transportation network companies (“TNCs”). Id. at 20-24.

The Trial Lawyer reports the auto industry, financial analyst, think tank and others project a radical car paradigm shift: that society is entering a new “pay-as-you-go” car era, that by 2030 commercial ride-sharing through TNCs will expand 8-fold, and that correspondingly only 20% of Americans will own a car. In addition to new TNCs like Uber and Lift, auto manufactures like GM, BMW and Ford already are experimenting with “on-demand car-sharing” in several US cities, toward managing car fleets (which is estimated to be far more profitable than selling individual cars). Id. at 20-21.

The Trial Lawyer underscores that TNCs envision those fleets being self-driving cars, i.e., “autonomous electric ride-shares”. Id. at 21. Not surprisingly, the auto/TNC “industry is working feverishly to enact a [new tort law] framework that favors industry and disfavors consumers [injured in TNC and autonomous vehicle crashes]”. Id. at 22. Despite simply holding TNCs to the same elevated non-delegable legal standard as “common carriers” under existing tort law being the best solution, id. at 21; Florida legislation in 2017 declared that a “TNC is not a common carrier,” after in 2016 enacting the nation’s “laxest [state] laws on the testing and operation of self-driving cars”. Id. at 22-23. Yikes! Beware!

Fortunately, as The Trial Lawyer notes, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), California and Michigan initiatives regarding self-driving vehicles and their owners, operators, testers, analyzers and reporters provide good examples for protecting future car crash victims. Id. at 23-24. The Commonwealth of Virginia needs to follow their lead to protect innocent consumers.

Mr. Waterman is a charter member of The National Trial Lawyers Top 100 Lawyers in Virginia. His practice focuses on vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, and other cases of personal injury and wrongful death.