Donald Gifford, ‘Technological Triggers to Tort Revolutions: Steam Locomotives, Autonomous Vehicles, and Accident Compensation’

Waves of technological change explain the most important transformations of American tort law. In this Article, I begin by examining historical instances of this linkage. Following the Industrial Revolution, for example, machines, no longer humans and animals, powered production. With greater force, locomotives and other machines inflicted far more severe injuries. These dramatic technological changes prompted the replacement of the preexisting strict liability tort standard with the negligence regime. Similarly, later technological changes caused the enactment of workers’ compensation statutes, the implementation of automobile no-fault systems in some states and routinized automobile settlement practices in others that resemble a no-fault system, and the adoption of ‘strict’ products liability. From this history, I derive a model explaining how technological innovation alters (1) the frequency of personal injuries, (2) the severity of such injuries, (3) the difficulty of proving claims, and (4) the new technology’s social utility. These four factors together determine the choice among three liability standards: strict liability, negligence, and no-fault liability with limited damages. I then apply this model to the looming technological revolution in which autonomous vehicles, robots, and other Artificial Intelligence machines will replace human decision-making as well as human force. I conclude that the liability system governing autonomous vehicles is likely to be one similar to the workers’ compensation system in which the victim is relieved of the requirement of proving which party acted tortiously and caused the accident.

Gifford, Donald G, Technological Triggers to Tort Revolutions: Steam Locomotives, Autonomous Vehicles, and Accident Compensation (December 19, 2017). Journal of Tort Law (forthcoming); U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No 2017-35.

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