The Return of Habeas Hard Drive: Drone Liability

What if a delivery drone falls on your head?” asks the Los Angeles Times, in a piece that contemplates the liabilities associated with using drones to transport merchandise from warehouse to the customer’s doorstep. 

The Times points out that when a drone-in-flight causes harm to persons or property, it may be difficult to sort out responsibility, since neither the seller of the merchandise nor the owner of the drone is necessarily the drone’s pilot. 

Habeas Hard Drive adds that digital evidence will make things a lot more clear. Multiple bodies of useful data will exist, and the more thorough your discovery order, the more clarity you’ll have about events leading up to the incident. The drone itself has electronically stored information (ESI) on board, which might include flight path data, records of its communication with the flight command center, and updates to its software. It’s important to order preservation of the drone’s memory as soon as notice has been served.

But remember that while the drone is at the center of the incident, it is a single spoke connected to a hub of transportation logistics. Additional bodies of data exist in the larger system, and they may be more useful sources of evidence.

One is the flight command center, where human traffic controllers are (or will be in the future) responsible for monitoring the flights of multiple autonomous drones simultaneously. A well-designed flight control system would produce at least two important sets of event logs. One set would record the activities of the human flight controllers, indicating their routine procedures as well as their interventions to correct  problems – anything from a software failure to an impending collision. Another set of event logs would report on the functioning of the screens and other equipment in the command center that allows the human flight controllers to view and communicate with the drones.

If additional sources of command center data exist, a thorough e-discovery process will reveal them. There should also be records of the drone’s history, including dates of service, malfunctions, or repairs.

Meanwhile at the warehouse, merchandise tracking records will be a separate source of potentially relevant ESI. Who handled the package prior to its departure on the drone? What other personnel were involved? Was the drone damaged or overloaded by warehouse personnel? Is there video? Were there any separate processes for pharmaceuticals or other regulated goods that might affect packaging? Additional questions will arise as you learn more from the warehouse records.

Start with the big picture, and then narrow scope as it becomes clear which data repositories will yield useful evidence. See the Los Angeles Times story here.


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