Autonomous Vehicles and The Case of Nettleship v Weston

Nettleship v Weston, a landmark ruling on liability of drivers in tort of negligence, is generally regarded as defining the boundaries between risk, responsibility and liability. Lawyers focusing on tortious liability issues raised by autonomous vehicles invariably emphasise the foundations of this fault based compensation system - that the defendant not only breached his duty of care but that the resulting injury suffered was a consequence of the defendant’s fault. Consequently, the imposition of liability would seem to be both fair and efficient.

In a series of posts, I want to examine this assumption and which leads to consideration of a critical question, which forms the basis of a paper that has been accepted for the Society of Legal Scholars Annual Conference 9-12 September at the University of Nottingham.

The central question, which forms the focus of this paper, is whether public policy considerations informing principles relating to the automobile industry need to be reassessed to accommodate the emergence of autonomous systems. This is an important and profound question.

I am presenting this paper together with my co-author Professor Michael Fisher. We look at one aspect of the likely significance of autonomous systems of the way we understand notions of fault, responsibility and liability. Intelligent software systems,not only embody capabilities previously associated with the human driver, but they also blur the previously distinct boundaries between the machine and the driver. The ruling of the Court of Appeal in Nettleship v Weston [1971] 2 QB 691 will provide the legal setting for considering one premise of tort law, namely, that requiring tortfeasors to internalize harms caused by their negligence will serve as a deterrent and induce efficient outcomes.