State's 44-year-old No-Fault Law best for Michigan's driving future

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Stephen Sinas
Sinas Dramis Law FIrm

The auto industry is working hard to improve vehicle safety by developing new technologies that will result in computers taking an increasingly active role in the operation of our vehicles. Many vehicles already have technology such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency breaking, dynamic brake support, pedestrian detection systems, crash or injury mitigation systems, adaptive cruise control, lane departure assist systems, etc.

Moreover, auto manufacturers are anticipating that fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles will be on our roads within the next few years. These technological developments are significant because they will reduce crashes and make roads safer. But crashes involving self-driving vehicles will happen. And what will be the legal rights of those injured in the crash?

As for how fault will be determined in a crash involving a self-driving vehicle, there are no clear answers. The technologies are still being developed and auto liability laws have not been adapted. Currently, concerns and unanswered questions include, but are not limited to, the following.

1. Under Michigan’s current auto liability laws, it is unlikely  an owner or operator of a self-driving vehicle can be held personally liable, in the event the technology within the vehicle is determined to be the cause of the crash.

2. If the self-driving vehicle’s driver or owner cannot be held personally liable, any liability claim must be pursued against the manufacturer of the technology that contributed to the crash.  However, under Michigan’s product liability law, it will be very difficult and costly for an injured person to establish liability against the vehicle manufacturer. 

3. The analysis of comparative negligence between the parties involved will be complex, especially in situations where the self-driving vehicle was programmed to take an action that may have contributed to the crash, but did so in order to avoid a bigger crash. 

The good news is that under Michigan’s No-Fault Law, these unanswered questions and concerns are irrelevant to determining whether there will be insurance coverage for the medical care required by a person injured in a crash involving a self-driving vehicle. Michigan’s No-Fault Law currently provides lifetime coverage for whatever is reasonably necessary for an injured person’s care, recovery or rehabilitation.

Furthermore, the injured person is entitled to this comprehensive medical coverage, regardless of who was at-fault in the crash. The injured person must simply show that his or her injuries arose out of the ownership, operation, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle. This means that a person seriously injured in a crash involving a self-driving vehicle will have lifetime comprehensive medical coverage for his or her injuries, without having to question whether the crash occurred because of human error, computer error, autonomous brake failure, faulty algorithms, vehicle camera malfunction, and so forth.

In this sense, the Michigan No-Fault Law, enacted more than 44 years ago, was way ahead of its time and is very well suited for Michigan’s future with autonomous driving technologies.

Moreover, other states should consider the wisdom of Michigan’s No-Fault Law as they ponder the legal complexities posed by these new driving technologies.

Ultimately, if we want our auto insurance laws to be as smart as our advancing auto technologies, then we need our elected leaders to preserve the comprehensive medical coverage available under the Michigan No-Fault Law for those injured in motor vehicle crashes, regardless of fault. 

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Stephen Sinas is a shareholder in the Lansing office of the Sinas Dramis Law Firm.

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