Will Self-Driving Cars Change Personal Injury Law?

Driverless cars will be the way of the future. They seem likely to change a number of industries, including car insurance, taxis, and parking. But will they change the practice of law for personal injury lawyers? This might be one of the first major shifts from technology in the plaintiff’s bar other than the acquisition of clients (from the yellow pages and newspaper ads to the internet/websites).

There have been a number of articles over the past few years about startups attempting to disrupt the legal industry. After all, the size of the U.S. legal market has been estimated at between $100 billion and $400 billion. And much of it is still performed by humans at an hourly rate.

Our law firm hasn’t seen much if any disruption by these startups yet because we don’t bill large corporations for our legal services at an hourly rate (unless we win and there is a fee shifting provision). We largely represent individuals on a contingency fee basis. So the transformation of document review for discovery from humans to automated electronic coding hasn’t impacted our business.

However, over the last year we have come to learn of one area where software might transform one of our practices: catastrophic car and truck injury accident lawsuits. Millions of people are injured in car crashes every year and tens of thousands are killed in accidents. Many of these individuals and families need legal representation right now in pursuit of compensation from their insurance company and the responsible party.

In a future of self-driving cars, hopefully, fewer people will need our services. There are already estimates that driverless cars will reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent, saving thousands of lives and up to $190 billion in damages and health care costs. Fewer injury accidents will mean less work for personal injury lawyers fighting with insurance companies for coverage. Self-driving cars have been in a number of accidents, but most of them have been blamed on distracted human drivers. Google only recently acknowledged the potential role played by its car/software in an accident with a public transit bus.

There are still many concerns with the technology. We’ve all had catastrophic computer crashes that call into question the ability of software to handle driving safely. And the FBI and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week issued a warning about the vulnerability of modern cars to hacking. Imagine the potential for catastrophe to occur when the automobile is in charge of steering, acceleration and other functions.

The coming changes to insurance and tort law to accommodate robot cars haven’t been created yet. Many courts will face issues of first impression as autonomous cars and cars without passengers get into accidents. Who will be held responsible for their accidents? The software manufacturer? The car company? The car owner? The insurance company? There will be a whole new body of law developed. We have already seen articles suggesting that this shift alternatively will put attorneys out of work or be a boon to the legal profession (product liability litigation for accidents rather than no fault insurance, as well as deeper pockets to sue).

It won’t be the first time that a legal practice has shifted. Auto injury litigation was already transformed once by no-fault insurance laws in many states. Tort reform has changed medical malpractice law. As attorneys, we look forward to the challenge.

Five years ago, Marc Andreessen declared that software is eating the world. If the projections about decreased injury accidents from self-driving cars are true, it could eat into the livelihood of many personal injury attorneys. I don’t think the world will miss the worst of them though. And those that excel will still probably find a rewarding and challenging practice area helping people hold the responsible parties liable for accidents and injuries.