Attack of the Drones: America’s New Favorite Hobby Launches Potential Products Liability Questions

The drones are coming. In many ways, they’re already here. And both manufacturers and distributors should be prepared to defend against the products liability lawsuits they’re bringing with them.

Whether you refer to them as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), we affectionately know them as “drones,” and they are rapidly expanding beyond the settings in which we’ve grown accustomed to seeing them. What at first were military weapons were eventually adapted for the delivery of products right to our doorstep. And now, drones have become accessible for the average American consumer for personal use. Drones currently on the market are controlled by your iPad or smart phone, and are enabled with a GPS-tracking system and 12-megapixel camera, all for less than $1,000.

Americans are purchasing drones at an ever-increasing rate – drone sales have expanded at least fourfold each year since 2009. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that roughly one million drones were sold just this past Christmas. Analysts expect this trend to continue, as the personal drone market is estimated to approach $100 billion in the next decade.

Of course, along with any technological advancement comes a host of new legal issues. The sheer size and speed of drones currently on the market adds up to the potential for inflicting significant damage upon both persons and property. The FAA considers any UAS up to 55 lbs. “small” and a UAS can fly up to 50 MPH. Imagine a full-grown golden retriever flying around at the speed of a car on the interstate.

Manufacturers and distributors need to be cognizant of the myriad of ways in which they can incur product liability lawsuits for drones they place in the stream of commerce. With respect to claims of design defects, manufacturers should both continue to augment safety features through research and development, as well as stay abreast of the latest technologies employed by competitors in the market. For example, many drone manufacturers already employ features which prevent takeoff from, or flight into, restricted areas, sensing and avoiding obstacles, and automatically returning to the location of the operator when the signal is lost or the battery is low.

In order to mitigate potential failure-to-warn claims, drone manufacturers should place conspicuous warnings in the owner’s manual, as well as on the packaging and drone itself. The warnings should alert operators to all potential pitfalls, including flying: at unsafe speeds; with impaired sight from the on-board camera; too close to hazards such as buildings, trees, or power lines; in airspace dedicated to other purposes (such as an airport); in inclement weather; in violation of regulations; if impaired in any way; and without reading the owner’s manual and practicing drone operation in a secure area.

As the industry continues its rapid expansion, the number of accidents caused by individual drone operators – and the lawsuits that are sure to follow – are poised to rise as well. Cruser & Mitchell’s Drone Litigation Team can help navigate this new legal landscape and mitigate any product liability exposure for both drone manufacturers and distributors.