(BCN) — A driverless car company operating in San Francisco and a company that supplied it human test drivers have taken a dispute over who should pay for an accident to federal court.
The case seems likely to prove that no matter how many human drivers are displaced by autonomous driving technology, at least an equal number of jobs will be created for lawyers. The autonomous car company Cruise LLC sued Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco claiming that Actalent Inc., a Maryland company that provided test drivers for its vehicles, should pay for the cost of a 2019 accident.
The dispute arises from a collision on Sept. 5, 2019, when Jonas Judd, a San Francisco resident, was on a scooter stopped at a red light, facing south, at the intersection of Gough, Haight and Market streets.
When the light turned green, Judd moved forward into the intersection. At the same time, Judd observed a Cruise vehicle with four individuals inside enter the intersection from Market Street, allegedly running a red light.
Judd braked hard but couldn’t avoid a collision. He hit the Cruise vehicle slightly behind the rear passenger door.
Judd fell and hit the pavement, leaving him, as his lawyer later described, “injured in his health, strength and activity, sustaining injury to the body, and person, all of which have caused and continue to cause [Judd] great mental and physical pain and suffering.”
Judd sued Cruise in state court in San Francisco on Sept. 2, 2021, asserting several claims, including one that he said arose from Cruise’s “conscious decision to dangerously test” their vehicles on San Francisco streets “in blatant and willful disregard for the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists.”
Cruise was founded in 2013 to develop and create autonomous vehicles. The company’s lawyers say its mission is “to build all-electric, zero-emission, automated vehicles that will help save lives, reimagine cities, reduce carbon pollution, redefine time in transit, and restore freedom of movement for individuals.”
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Cruise currently holds a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to deploy autonomous vehicles and it has been operating a fee-based autonomous ride-sharing service in San Francisco since June 2022.
The hilly terrain and urban density of San Francisco provided a formidable venue for testing the new technology.
Cruise describes the streetscapes of San Francisco as “some of the most complex and unpredictable driving environments in the United States. Cruise vehicles encounter construction, cyclists, pedestrians, and six-way intersections over 40 times more frequently in San Francisco than they would in suburban environments.”
To test the technology, Cruise needed the services of numerous “Autonomous Vehicle Test Operators” (AVTOs) to help “train and maintain its autonomous vehicles in San Francisco.”
To get the AVTOs it needed, in September 2020 Cruise signed a staffing agreement with Actalent’s predecessor, under which Actalent would provide AVTOs and other staff for Cruise’s needs.
The agreement allegedly says that the people provided to Cruise will work for Actalent and will be Actalent’s employees, even though they work in San Francisco in Cruise vehicles.
Actalent allegedly agreed to indemnify Cruise against any claims asserted by third parties against Cruise based on the acts or omissions of Actalent’s employees.
When Judd sued Cruise for the scooter accident, he also sued an individual named Justin Lee, who was allegedly in the driver’s seat of the vehicle. Lee was an AVTO working for Cruise, and an employee of Actalent.
Cruise demanded that Actalent defend against the suit and indemnify Cruise for any liability. Actalent declined that opportunity, as it did with another lawsuit that also involved an AVTO employed by Actalent, this one claiming the AVTO was fired on account of a disability.
In February of this year, Actalent sued Cruise in federal court in Maryland, alleging that Cruise had failed to pay Actalent’s invoices for its services. Actalent claimed that Cruise owed it more than $400,000.
Cruise’s suit Thursday in San Francisco mentions the pending Maryland lawsuit but asks the San Francisco court to get involved and determine that Cruise should not have to pay Actalent because Actalent violated the staffing agreement by refusing to indemnify Cruise.
The kerfuffle is providing great opportunities for the legal profession.
The Maryland lawsuit, according to court records, requires the services of three law firms, one for Actalent and two for Cruise. The state court suit in San Francisco brought by Judd involves five law firms, according to the court docket — two for Cruise, two for Lee and one for Judd.
The other state court suit — the one with employment claims — has three firms listed on the docket.
So far, Cruise’s new federal suit only involves one law firm — this one on behalf of Cruise — and that firm is also involved in the Maryland action so some economies of scale may obtain. However, the case is brand-new and undoubtedly Actalent will need lawyers to mount a vigorous defense.
Assuming that Actalent can get away with one law firm, that will bring the total to just short of a dozen.
While it is too early to draw conclusions about what will happen in any of these cases, the situation does suggest that the legal profession is likely to be among the most prominent beneficiaries of autonomous driver technology.
Requests for comment were not immediately returned by lawyers for Cruise, Actalent or Judd.
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