Automobile manufacturers and government safety agencies are working to develop computer systems for cars and other vehicles that can assist the driver, particularly in regard to avoiding collisions and other accidents. Generally known as intelligent transport systems (ITS), this technology would hopefully make significant improvements in road safety for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. From the point of view of a personal injury attorney, however, the question arises of how this will affect liability in the event and accident does occur. Most claims for auto accident injuries proceed against the driver who caused the accident. If ITS allows cars to essentially drive themselves, as some proponents claim, would an injured person be able to assert a claim against an auto manufacturer under a theory of products liability?
ITS refers to a broad range of devices and applications that assist in the operation of a vehicle. These may include wireless technologies that allow onboard computer systems to communicate with corresponding systems in other vehicles or on stationary objects like guardrails. These are often known as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems, and they can help alert a driver to an approaching hazard or avoid a collision. ITS systems may warn drivers of red lights or upcoming traffic congestion. More advanced ITS systems, which have not advanced beyond the conceptual phase, would take over operation of a vehicle in certain circumstances, using V2V and V2I technology to navigate and avoid accidents.
Auto manufacturer Toyota recently demonstrated new ITS technologies for reporters at a testing facility in Japan. A warning beep sounded in the car to alert the driver to a pedestrian, and then to a car approaching at an intersection. A verbal warning sounded if the driver was nearing a red light without slowing. Toyota is reportedly testing a system that determines when a driver presses the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal by mistake, and corrects for the error by immediately stopping the vehicle.
An accident in which a teenage driver, allegedly distracted by a hand-held cell phone, struck and killed a jogger in Norwalk, Connecticut has brought attention to the issue of distracted driving and its risks. These risks are particularly pronounced for young and novice drivers. However, distracted driving — generally defined as driving while dividing attention between the road and a hand-held electronic communication device like a cell phone — is dangerous for everyone. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, over 3,000 people died in automobile accidents in 2010 in which distraction was a factor. Connecticut’s laws regarding distracted driving are among the strictest in the nation, but all drivers should be mindful of the dangers posed by distracted driving.
The accident occurred on March 24, 2012, when a 16 year-old teen driver struck and killed a jogger, 44 year-old Kenneth Dorsey. Police are withhelding the girl’s name because of her age, but they allege that she was using a hand-held cell phone either when the accident occurred, or shortly before it happened. Prosecutors in Norwalk charged her with negligent homicide, which could result in up to a year in jail. She also faces a fine and a thirty-day license suspension for violating Connecticut’s cell phone ban for drivers under the age of eighteen.
Connecticut passed its distracted driving law in 2008, and teen deaths from traffic accidents have reportedly declined steeply since then. Total annual teen traffic fatalities in Connecticut peaked at thirteen in 2007 and dropped to two by 2011. The law imposes strict limitations on minor and novice drivers.
Drivers under the age of eighteen cannot use cell phones in any manner, including with a hands-free device, while they operate a vehicle. This blanket prohibition also applies to school bus drivers who are working. The law prohibits all other drivers from hand-held cell phone use while driving, but they may use a hands-free device. A ban on texting while driving applies to all drivers statewide. Violations can results in a license suspension and a fine or reinstatement fee. Connecticut is reportedly the only state that allows police, if they catch a teen violating the cell phone ban, to suspend the teen’s license for forty-eight hours at the scene.
A 19 year-old student at Western Connecticut State University died after a hit-and-run accident on Tuesday, November 22, 2011. Dong Lin, a commuter student at the university who resided in Brookfield, was struck by a car around 5:30 p.m. while crossing White Street in Danbury. Police responded to a call at about 5:35 p.m. Lin was later pronounced dead at Danbury Hospital. Police have not announced any suspects or arrests in the case. Both Danbury and university police are reportedly investigating the accident, and have asked any witnesses to come forward. The only available witness description was of a “dark-colored, boxy car.” The university is also making additional counseling resources available to its community in the wake of the accident.
Hit-and-run accidents have consequences far beyond the people directly injured or killed. When a person flees the scene of an accident, especially one with a fatality, that person creates further difficulties for both the victims and the authorities. The case could eventually have both criminal and civil components.
The driver, if apprehended, will likely face a charge of “misconduct with a motor vehicle” or “negligent homicide with a motor vehicle,” as defined by Connecticut law. The misconduct charge involves “criminal negligence” in operating a motor vehicle that causes another person’s death. It is a class D felony with a penalty of one to five years imprisonment. The negligent homicide offense, considered a lesser included offense of the misconduct charge, involves merely negligent operation of a motor vehicle that causes a person’s death. It carries a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment. Considering that the driver apparently fled the scene of the accident in this case, a misconduct charge, if not an outright charge of manslaughter, seems likely.
The driver also faces potential civil liability for wrongful death. This is a civil claim brought by the heirs of someone who died as a result of another person’s illegal or negligent conduct. Unlike a criminal case, which is brought by the state and seeks to punish the defendant, a wrongful death claim seeks financial compensation for the loss of the decedent’s support and companionship.
An equipment malfunction may have caused a U-Haul truck to crash into a tailgate party outside the Yale University football stadium, killing one person and injuring two more, according to the truck’s driver. Police are still investigating the crash and its possible causes. For a personal injury lawyer, the case presents the critical question of who could be held liable for the crash, and in this case it is not yet clear.
The crash occurred Saturday, November 19, 2011. The truck, driven by a Yale junior, was on its way to a fraternity tailgate party outside the football stadium when it suddenly swerved and sped up, veering into a crowd and hitting three women attending another tailgate party. A 30 year-old woman from Salem, Massachusetts was killed. Another victim was taken to a nearby hospital in serious but stable condition. A third victim received treatment for minor injuries.
New Haven police took the driver of the U-Haul to police headquarters and administered a standard field sobriety test. The driver reportedly passed the test, and he was released from police custody. No charges have been filed against him. Two passengers were also reportedly in the truck at the time of the crash, but neither was detained by police.
Police impounded the truck, a Ford F-350 with a V-10 Triton engine, in order to preserve it for inspection. The Yale Daily News interviewed several individuals with knowledge of this model of truck regarding the claim of some sort of vehicle malfunction. Some F-350 models apparently have closely-spaced gas and brake pedals, for example, leaving the possibility that a driver could accidentally push both pedals, or even just the gas pedal, when intending to brake. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has apparently received several complaints regarding this truck model.
Although it is too early to say what claims may arise from this tragic event, a wrongful death claim on behalf of the woman killed in the crash seems likely. This requires proof that someone’s negligence directly caused her death. Three possible defendants present themselves, depending on how the investigation turns out: the driver of the truck, the truck rental company, or the truck’s manufacturer. No evidence yet available supports a specific negligence claim against any of the actual people or businesses involved in this case, so of course this analysis is purely hypothetical.