John Isaac Southerland Personal Jurisdiction Article Published

“Where will suit be filed? Personal jurisdiction considerations when engaging in joint development of autonomous vehicle technology”

By: John Isaac Southerland and Alex Thrasher
Automotive Testing Technology International
Winter 2017


The idea of a network of fully autonomous vehicles zooming across roads and highways elicits visions of human passengers within casually reading the newspaper, playing cards, or even peacefully napping.  Meanwhile, the autonomous technology tirelessly works to communicate with other vehicles and fixed infrastructure to operate the vehicle safely and without error – constantly measuring and calculating to ensure a level of safety unreachable under the hands of human guidance.  After all, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 94 percent of fatal crashes result from human error or decision, and it cites this statistic as one of the primary reasons for its strong support in favor of autonomous technologies on American roadways.

However, despite the promise of revolutionizing the way the world travels, and simultaneously reducing the toll that automobile accidents levy on economies and human lives, the likelihood that even a fully autonomous network of vehicles will bring an end to all crashes and incidents seems far-fetched.  Particularly during the lengthy transitional period away from human-navigated automobiles to a fully autonomous network of software-driven machines, in which we have even yet to enter, crashes will still occur, and these crashes will give rise to legal considerations which must be confronted by manufacturers, suppliers, consumers, and particularly, the courts.

In every case tried before an American court of law, the court must be able to assert both subject matter jurisdiction over the case, and personal jurisdiction over a respective defendant in order for that court to be legally empowered to enter a judgment in the controversy.  Courts find subject matter jurisdiction over a case by examining the controversy at issue, i.e. federal courts generally have subject matter jurisdiction over matters involving federal questions or diversity.  Personal jurisdiction over defendants is said to be either specific or general.  Specific personal jurisdiction is generally found when alleged liability arises from or is related to an activity conducted within the chosen forum so long as conduct creates a substantial connection to the forum, e.g. the allegedly defective product was first sold in the chosen forum.  Alternatively, general jurisdiction is asserted only when an out-of-state defendant’s conduct giving rise to the lawsuit occurs outside of that forum, but the defendant’s “affiliations with the State are so ‘continuous and systematic’ as to render [it] essentially at home in the forum State.” (Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746, 754 (citing Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 131 S. Ct. 2846, 2853)).  As manufacturers and suppliers continue to work together to develop autonomous technology, they should consider the effect their joint development efforts may have on a court’s assertion of personal jurisdiction in litigation.

To read the full article, click here.