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.
InFlorida 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 infringements.
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.