The liabilities of Anheuser-Busch

Anheuser-Busch – which owns Budweiser, Michelob, Rolling Rock, Busch, Shock Top, and other beer brands – has, over the years, been the cause of many injuries. Not surprisingly, it has also been the subject of many lawsuits, many of them filed after individuals drank excessively and then hurt themselves.

For example, one man who attended the Bud World Party at the 2002 Winter Olympics became intoxicated and then took part in a hockey puck shooting contest. He slipped on the ice and suffered damage to his brain, neck, and head. He sued Anheuser-Busch, and not without success. While the jury found that the man himself was mostly liable for his injuries, they decided the beverage manufacturer was also at fault, and ordered Anheuser-Busch to pay damages.

A recent case in California, however, puts a twist on the types of lawsuits the company most often sees, as no alcohol was consumed at all.

Reckless merchandising

The matter begins with an 86-year-old woman sustaining an injury in a grocery store and ends with an $886,974 verdict in her favor. As detailed in the National Law Review, the woman was shopping at an Albertsons, a national grocery chain with a heavy presence along the west coast, when an Anheuser-Busch employee struck her from behind with a merchandise cart. She fell, injuring her back – and injury that, she claimed, resulted in chronic pain. Her medical expenses, she said, amounted to nearly $300,000, and she sought damages for pain and suffering as well.

The scene was caught on video, and Anheuser-Busch admitted liability. Nevertheless, they believed the woman’s claims to be excessive and argued that many of her purported ailments stemmed from her age, and not the cart accident. They posited that, prior to the injury, the woman suffered from arthritis, vascular disease, and scoliosis, among other ailments. They offered a settlement of $85,000 – an offer that was summarily rejected. In court, the plaintiff sought $1.1 million.

How the injury claim was maximized

The case is an interesting object lesson in how a plaintiff’s injuries can be disputed, even when liability is not. That is, even though Anheuser-Busch acknowledged it was at fault, the company believed a great deal of the woman’s suffering arose from underlying medical conditions.

The jury, as it happened, disagreed. The trial lasted less than a week; the jury deliberated for less than three hours. With the help of her attorneys, the plaintiff was able to convey the full range of her injuries, and obtained what can likely be deemed her maximum due.

What happens when a self-driving car kills its driver?

In early May, in central Florida, a 40-year-old Navy veteran was killed while driving-or, more accurately, not-driving-his car. He was behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S electric sedan, a car which had been outfitted with the ability to drive itself. A tractor-trailer made a sudden turn in front of the Tesla; the Tesla failed to apply its brakes; its operator died in the ensuing crash.

According to The New York Times, this is the first known fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle. Yet as Tesla, Google, General Motors, and other firms continue to develop autonomously driving vehicles, it is safe to say it will not be the last.

This raises an interesting legal question. Namely, when an individual is injured or killed by a self-driving car, who should be held liable? As yet, it is unclear whether the “driver” or the car company itself should be considered the party at fault.

Who’s to blame? (And how much should they pay?)

Tesla did not claim responsibility for the crash in Florida. Nor did it claim the driver was responsible. “Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” the company said in a prepared statement. (One report notes that the driver may not have noticed the tractor-trailer because he was watching “Harry Potter” at the time of the crash.)

At present, Tesla requires operators of its self-driving vehicles to acknowledge that its autopilot mode is strictly “an assist feature” that is still “in beta phase,” and that the driver must pay attention to the road at all times. It would seem this measure is a means for the company to protect itself from liability. As yet, no claims have been brought in the present case.

Yet when such cars become more prevalent, it may become impossible for manufacturers to remain unexposed to risk. Companies will likely face claims of products liability, personal injury, and wrongful death frequently-after all, their insurance policies will be more robust than those of individual drivers, and victims may be able to seek greater compensation.

The machines, it seems, will win. Their manufacturers, however, may not.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, has touted the company’s self-driving feature as being “better than a person.” After the accident, he’s been more circumspect, and offered his condolences on Twitter.

Still, he was equally quick to defend the technology. He detailed this is the first fatality in more than 130 million miles where autopilot was activated, where is typically a fatality occurs once every 94 million miles in the U.S. “Autopilot,” he said, “is getting better all the time.”

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