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What Lawsuits Can Be Filed for Accidents Involving Drones?

The following post is part of our Law Student Blog Writing Project, and is authored by Raphael Jackson, a law student from the Chase School of Law.

Drones are becoming more and more common in the sky.  The law is struggling to evolve to address what can happen if drones are used improperly, and if someone is hurt as a result of drone use.  While that may seem far-fetched now, some shipping companies such as Amazon are experimenting with having packages delivered by drones.  If these experiments are successful, drone use will increase exponentially.  This article will discuss what drones are, and what can be done if you or a loved one have been hurt by a drone aircraft.

What is a Drone?

UAV, or unmanned aircraft, is the technical name for drones. Drones are increasing in popularity as they are becoming more affordable to the average consumer. Prices can range from eighty dollars to upwards of two thousand dollars depending on their strength, range, and technical capabilities.   Drones can weigh from as little as twelve grams to as much as fifty-four pounds. Drones weighing more than fifty-five pounds are typically not of the recreational variety and as such would require registration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  Safe piloting of a drone entails the pilot to fly below four hundred feet, so as not to interfere with the traffic of manned aircraft.

Even lower-end drones have the capability of flying outside of the range of your own backyard, which is where the fun, and also much of the legal liability, begins. The cameras that many drones come equipped with encourage drone pilots to fly their craft over many scenic places. Unfortunately, some of these locations involve public places with a moderate amount of pedestrian traffic. Studies indicate that drones are more likely to crash than civil aircraft, and as evidenced by the rising popularity of the Youtube channel “Drones vs. Humans,” collisions between drones and human beings are becoming more and more common. As drones increase in popularity and affordability, this phenomena will become more common place as time goes on.

Drones and Tort Law

Legal dockets have yet to see any recreational drone involved in intentional collisions. However, pilot negligence, unexpected weather conditions, and faulty manufacturing are all factors that can lead to accidental collision and subsequent injury. Drones have fast moving metal or plastic propeller blades. Additionally, crashes from high altitudes, or from rapid speeds can be the cause of substantial injury.

Despite petitions to the contrary, as of this writing courts have yet to reach a consensus as to whether recreational drone flying, in it of itself, is considered an abnormally dangerous activity. Thus a person who has been injured by a drone would likely find recourse within the same traditional common law remedies which she would seek had she been injured by a mishandled frisbee, kite, or football.

Collision injuries notwithstanding, other torts likely to fall within the realm of drone use are trespass, invasion of privacy, or conversion. A person claiming trespass will generally need to show interference with their actual use of, or substantial damage to, their land. Tort claims for trespass have succeeded at heights of twenty to thirty feet. If someone wrongfully confiscates your drone, they may be liable for conversion. Conversion is the wrongful possession or disposition of another’s property as if it were one’s own.

What Can I Do if Someone Intentionally Destroyed My Drone?

Self-help is a common law remedy which gives the landowner a right to exercise reasonable force to remove trespassers from their property.   Although the law is divided across the states, shooting a drone out of the sky may not generally be considered a viable self help remedy, particularly for those who live in urban, or suburban settings. Ryan Calo, a noted drone scholar at the University of Washington, thinks a person or property “would probably have to be threatened . . . for [one] to be able to destroy someone else’s drone without fear of a counterclaim.”

The FAA has classified drones as aircraft.  Intentional destruction of an aircraft carries the risk of federal prosecution. Thus, it behooves the property owner to exercise reasonable limits when seeking self-help remedies.  Rather than shooting down a drone, a less confrontational way of deterring a drone would be to create and display a sign which reads “PLEASE RESPECT OUR PRIVACY.” Pilots understand that once within reach, drones are fairly easy to take down. Given the money that they have invested in their hobby, the pilot is likely to cede to your request over risking unnecessary loss of or damage to her drone. Both parties should bear in mind that, should the pilot decide to file a counter claim against the property owner, footage filmed by the drone can work for or against the petitioner.

Can Using a Drone Result in an Invasion of Privacy?

Many people have witnessed the camera mounted vehicles which capture images for google street view. Many drones have similar image capture capabilities. As a general rule if the photographed subject is already a matter of public record, then merely viewing or storing the image within your drones’ camera is not likely to give rise to a tort liability. The Supreme Court under U.S. v. Causby, ruled that the space in a backyard at eye level is certainly within the “immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere” that is under the “exclusive control” of the landowner. So as long as the flight path is indiscriminate and is not over an intimate personal space scrutinized under a “reasonable expectation of privacy” analysis, then the drone pilot may be within her legal means of flying.

Photographs or video recordings made in public might not necessarily constitute an invasion of privacy. Nonetheless, if the photographer intends to make these images public by means of the internet or magazine publication, she should take special care to obscure the image of any subject who has not consented to being photographed. There are several free apps online that can edit images accordingly.

Conclusion

Laws dealing with drones are relatively new, and constantly evolving. As such, drone operation, or interference thereof may incur various legal consequences. That being said, injury by drone whether due to pilot negligence, or manufacturing defect, is still covered by our existing body of law.

If you or a loved one has been injured by a drone; you have evidence that a drone has invaded your privacy; or you are a drone pilot that would like to file a claim against a property owner who has unlawfully destroyed your drone, you should contact one of our attorneys for a free consultation.  We’re Working Hard for the Working Class, and we want to help you!