Who is responsible? I, Robot?

Who is responsible? I, Robot?

First we had a news story about a robot conducting a wedding (well, the happy couple were both robotics engineers so there was some logic to it). Then there was a story about robots that can take your blood pressure, give you simple tests and generally make your stay in hospital a bit more efficient. Each of these of which reminded me of an article from the US I read recently about liability for the actions of robots. What the article boiled down to was, “Who you gonna sue?”

Coming from that litigious country, the short answer appeared to be “everybody” except, of course, the robot. After all, why waste your money on it? But this got me thinking about what would happen here in our rather more practical legal system. Here, the blood pressure tests, even via robot, would be supplied by the health provider, and any problem would work on the usual rules: does it fall under accident compensation in which case you could not sue except for major disregard of your rights? If not, was there negligence involved or breach of contract or some other existing legal right? You would probably start with a complaint to the Health and Disability Commissioner.

The US article (written by a Stanford University professor) gave as an example someone falling over a robot vacuum cleaner. Now, is the manufacturer of a coffee table liable every time someone trips over it? No, otherwise those wearing glasses, like me, would be regular plaintiffs. So the manufacturer of a domestic robot shouldn’t be liable if someone trips over - it unless it is invisible of course.

Liability should follow the fundamental rule of risk allocation: the person who can manage the risk should bear the risk. If no party to a supply chain transaction can manage the risk, then each party insures.

Therefore, design risks are allocated to the manufacturer - the only person who can control them. The manufacturer should understand, and therefore be responsible for, normal domestic risks that might arise from faulty product. Operational risks (that is normal risks occurring during use, which are within the scope of the information supplied to the consumer or within the reasonable consumer’s knowledge) are allocated to the consumer. But the manufacturer of a domestic robot shouldn’t have to be liable for business-related risks - how can it know what these are?

In New Zealand we have the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993, which allocates risk in this way via its non-contractual guarantees for consumer goods and services. Manufacturers and retailers (called suppliers) are liable to consumers for defects in goods which are present at the time the consumer agreed to acquire the goods, even if those defects do not show up until some time later. Service suppliers are similarly liable to consumers for defects in the service they have supplied. Suppliers can contract out of liability but only in business to business transactions, and if they do contract out, manufacturers are also protected.

So if my domestic robot wrecks my washing machine and ruins a wash-load of clothes, then provided I followed the instructions and took reasonable precautions, I can claim against the supplier I bought it from and also against the manufacturer – I’ll only get one remedy of course, and who actually wears the cost depends on the contract between manufacturer and supplier.

Did I hear you ask “what about androids”? Well, that is a different story altogether, and it won’t begin till we have some idea about how they will work. I can’t wait to begin the legal theory on that one!

Rae Nield is a solicitor specialising in marketing law. This article is intended for general information, and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for advice relating to your own specific legal problems. Rae Nield can be contacted at

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