Can You Sue a Robot? Part 3
If YOUR Drone Crashes into MY House and Punches a Hole in MY Roof, Get
Ready for a Lawsuit! Otherwise, I probably can’t do a thing!
In previous installments of our “Can You Sue a Robot?” series,
we have seen that it is virtually impossible to have the slightest chance
of convincing a jury that a robot may be liable for any injuries caused
by a defect in the robot’s artificial intelligence software. Although
there is very little statutory or “written” law that describes
specific situations in which the operator of a remotely-piloted aviation
vehicle can be held liable for personal injuries or damage to private
property, the existing “common” or “case” law
suggests that the courts will be dismissive of Fourth Amendment concerns.
Florida v. Riley, (1989) the United States Supreme Court held that police officials do
not need a warrant to observe an individual's property from public
airspace in order to document evidence of criminal activity. Furthermore,
courts in both the UK and the US have long held that there is no expectation
of an individual’s right to privacy if the individual is photographed
from “public” or “unregulated” airspace! As of
this writing, art galleries and museums may be able to ban such photography
if they can show that such bans are a reasonable deterrence to copyright
Anyone involved in a lawsuit related to the operation of a commercial (“for
hire”) Unmanned Aviation Vehicle (a UAV or “drone”)
should probably be an aviation accident lawyer or at least be on very
friendly terms with such an attorney. The need for having such an individual
in your circle of friends is best understood by way of example.
According to The Wikipedia Summary of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation
(14 CFR), Part 107, “Class G Airspace” (the law stating in
what type of airspace a commercial drone can legally operate) is defined as:
“Class G airspace includes all airspace below 14,500 feet (4,400
m) MSL not otherwise classified as controlled. There are no entry or clearance
requirements for class G airspace, even for IFR operations. Class G airspace
is typically the airspace very near the ground (1,200 feet or less), beneath
class E airspace and between class B-D cylinders around towered airstrips.
“Radio communication is not required in class G airspace, even for
IFR operations. Class G is completely uncontrolled. “VFR visibility
requirements in class G airspace are 1 mile (1.6 km) by day, and 3 miles
(5 km) by night, for altitudes below 10,000 feet (3,050 m) MSL but above
1,200 feet AGL. Beginning at 10,000 feet MSL, 5 miles (8 km) of visibility
are required, day and night. Cloud clearance requirements are to maintain
an altitude that is 500 feet below, 1,000 feet above, 2,000 feet horizontal;
at or above 10,000 feet MSL, they are 1,000 feet below, 1,000 feet above,
and 1 mile laterally. By day at 1,200 feet (370 m) AGL and below, aircraft
must remain clear of clouds, and there is no minimum lateral distance.”
This unambiguous definition is, of course, if the UAV is otherwise “legally”
operated by being, among other things:
- Registered with the FAA if it weighs more than 55 lbs. (25 kg)
- Operated by a FAA-registered Remotely Piloted Vehicle Operator
- Engaged in daylight operating-conditions-only operations, or during “civil
twilight” (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after
official sunset, local time) with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
- Must be yielding the right of way to other aircraft.
As current tort law is interpreted by American courts, there appear to
be at least two legal theories that offer the best chances of assigning
direct liability in drone accidents to drone operators, with the first
theory being the plausibility of designating drone operations as being
inherently dangerous and thus creating a burden of absolute liability
on a drone owner and operator in case of an accident This would essentially
allow lawsuits to proceed based on the observation that an accident occurred
is sufficient evidence of negligence without requiring the plaintiff to
establish a more formal proof.
A second, or more “traditional” theory, would hold the designers,
testers and/or retailers of drone equipment such as control software or
components that were used by the drone’s owner or service provider
to be responsible for the consequences of any equipment malfunctions occurring
during “normal” or “customary” drone operations.
The concept of liability during the use of robotic equipment is still being
debated by accident lawyers and this exciting new application of tort
law is still far from being a settled issue. In future installments of
this series, our accident lawyer will take a more in depth look at how
robotics may become central to disputes regarding both personal privacy
and even how criminal law is practiced in the Internet Age.