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Liability in the 21st Century

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When an accident happens, designating liability is usually pretty straightforward. If you are injured due to a car accident that is not your fault, for example, you may seek damages from the other driver. Thanks to advances in technology, however, the rules are becoming less black-and-white. In an interesting case involving Volkswagen in Germany, a young contractor was installing a robot when it struck out and hit him. He died later in the hospital. Who is at fault for this type of accident? These are questions the law is seeking answers to.

Science Fiction Come to Life?

In 1942, science fiction writer Issac Asimov wrote three laws that he felt governed the world of robots. They are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In Asimov’s world, these rules were merely for science fiction. But the stories he created 75 years ago are becoming a reality today. Now we have robots assembling our machines, driving our cars, even flying aircrafts and participating in war. How does the law prepare for these types of changes?

Ulrike Barthelmess and Ulrich Furbach study robotics at the University of Koblenz in Germany. According to them, humans are still ultimately responsible and we need human laws, not Asimov’s laws, to cope with issues that may arise.

Liability in Work and War

Barthelmess and Furbach are not the only ones studying robotic liability. At the recent International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk were among signatories in an open letter warning against autonomous weapons. Similarly, in April, Harvard Law School and Human Rights Watch called for a ban on autonomous weapons in a jointly published report.

While autonomous weaponry poses a more immediate threat than work-aiding machinery, it still poses an interesting set of questions that will continue to dominate academic circles. While weaponry and drones may fall into the realm of international law, an accident like one in Germany will fall under each individual nation’s (or state’s) discretion.

Robot-Related Accidents Worldwide

The incident in Germany is unfortunately not without precedent. The New York Times detailed several accidents in a recent piece, while British authorities documented 77 robot-related accidents in 2005 alone. It is important to note that robot-related incidents are still relatively rare and occur under a specific set of circumstances.

According to the U.S. Labor Department: “Studies indicate that many robot accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment… During many of these operations the worker may temporarily be within the robot’s working envelope where unintended operations could result in injuries.”

This was, according to German news reports, the case with the contractor in the Volkswagen plant; he was reportedly inside the safety cage when the robot struck him. German prosecutors are still investigating the incident to see who might be liable. “We will then decide whether to bring charges, and, if so, against whom,” they said in a statement.

In this case, the burden may be on the manufacturer, according to one law professor. The prosecution will have to determine if the manufacturer committed negligence through failures to warn the contractors of potential dangers or failures to take proper care of the equipment. The prosecution may also mount a case on potential to avoid foreseeable risks, but this is harder to prove in court.

No matter the outcome, cases such as these may set precedent for other issues of the same nature. If you have questions, or if you have suffered an injury at work, contact us for more information.