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Why Uber Could Be Held Criminally Liable In Fatal Crash Involving Autonomous Car (Updated)

Illustration for article titled Why Uber Could Be Held Criminally Liable In Fatal Crash Involving Autonomous Car (Updated)
Photo: Uber

Under an executive order signed this month by Arizona’s governor, Uber could be held criminally liable for a fatal crash involving one of its self-driving cars that struck and killed a pedestrian Sunday.


Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s new rules, implemented March 1, lay out a specific list of licensing and registration requirements for autonomous car operators. Specifically, Ducey’s order specifies that a “person” subject to the laws includes any corporation incorporated in Arizona.


The change, highlighted by the Phoenix New Times before the crash happened, could leave Uber open to possible criminal charges.

In response to questions from the alt-weekly, Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato and Ducey’s chief of staff, Kirk Adams, said the state wouldn’t be held liable if an autonomous car negligently killed a pedestrian:

“The technology has advanced considerably, and the industry has grown rapidly,” said Kirk Adams, Ducey’s chief of staff. “The companies still have work to do, certainly from a public understanding of the technology. That’s their job. Our job is to make sure that we are protecting public safety.”

[...] The corporation that operates the vehicles would be responsible, they said, and the company could be held criminally liable just like a person.

As the new executive order states, a “person” is defined as including corporations under state law. The company would also pay any traffic tickets the driverless vehicle may incur, they said.

While Ducey has been incredibly welcoming of autonomous car testing in Arizona, this order represented a stronger push toward regulation and safety, ending the sort of free-for-all that the state had in place before.

The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Jalopnik. Uber said earlier Monday that it’s cooperating with the police investigation of the crash.


And as the news outlet Law & Crime explains, the concept of corporate manslaughter is a legally sound theory:

But the concept is more or less foreign to U.S. law and it’s not quite obvious who would be served with an indictment in the event Uber was charged with a crime. Other questions arise: Who would be arrested over the death? Does Uber’s CEO have a jumpsuit in his future? The potential for a corporation to be charged with manslaughter raises multiple issues of novelty and legal first impressions.


An initial statement from Tempe police said that the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was crossing the street outside of a designated crosswalk. Arizona isn’t a “full pedestrian right-of-way state,” Law & Crime explains, which would “seem to mitigate the potential for Uber (or whoever) to be charged with a crime over Herzberg’s death.”

“However, previous Arizona defendants have been charged with vehicular homicide-related crimes in instances where the driver was somehow at fault,” the news outlet said. “Therefore, the placement of the pedestrian is likely to be considered a factor in any criminal liability determination–not a controlling element.”


It wasn’t immediately clear whether police in Tempe, Arizona, had a criminal investigation underway. A press conference with the the city’s police department is scheduled for 6 p.m. EST.

Update: March 19, 2018 6:20 p.m.: The Tempe Police news conference this afternoon revealed that, according to a preliminary investigation, the vehicle was traveling at approximately 40 MPH and does not appear to have attempted to stop before hitting the pedestrian. The official said the investigation will continue as a standard collision investigation in response to a question about determining who was at fault. The official deferred defining autonomous driving to Uber. You can watch the short news conference in full below:

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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One person dies in a car accident and we talk about the company running the test being potentially criminally liable.

People are killed by guns every day and no one blinks an eye at companies involved.