Autonomous Vehicles in Belgium. Is our legal system ready?

We have been hearing about autonomous vehicles (“AVs”) for quite a while. However, as time goes by, the use of AVs is getting closer to becoming a reality. In various countries, car manufacturers are now carrying out tests on open or closed parts of public roads. Just like engineers are facing technical challenges in this field, lawyers have to deal with questions around liability, cybersecurity, data protection, insurance, intellectual property, etc. In this framework, news about AVs accidents are getting less and less uncommon, and they lead to tricky liability questions, such as: can a car user be held liable if he or she had no direct control over the wheel?

Such questions might need a clear answer in the near future and the whole AV subject at large is gaining track. Recently, a Belgian politician launched the idea to make Belgium the first country to welcome AVs. In parallel, the European Commission issued in February 2020 a White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, referring to liabilities incurred by AI, and by extension by AVs.

What do you mean, “autonomous” vehicle (“AV”)?

AVs’ autonomy varies in degree. Subject to a specific European scale of autonomy measurement, authors generally refer to the Society of Automotive Engineering (“SAE”)’s scale. SAE is an international organisation based in US. It brings together engineers, CEOs, researchers, professors, and students who share ideas on automotive engineering. It established six levels of autonomy, ranging from a complete human intervention (level 0) to a total absence of human action (level 5).

To date, the most advanced AVs on the market are of level 3. In that case, the vehicle can handle itself all aspects of the driving tasks within a certain set of circumstances. In some instances, the human driver must be ready to take back control of the vehicle when the AV so requires, e.g. during a traffic jam. According to car manufacturers’ (enthusiastic) declarations, the next levels of autonomy should reach our market in the coming months or years.

How does Belgian law address liability issues in the case of AV accident?

At this stage, Belgian law does not have any specific liability regime addressing the risks generated by AVs.

A victim of an AV should thus find its way through the existing and non-specific Belgian liability regimes. In short, four liability regimes can be identified as potential legal basis for a claim.

1. The fault-based liability regime (Article 1382 of the Civil Code)

This requires the victim to prove three things: a wrongful behaviour from the AV user, a damage and a causal relationship between the behaviour and the damage.

The tricky question here is whether a driver can be found guilty of a wrongful behaviour if he or she was letting the AV operating itself at the time of the accident?

2. The strict liability regime for the use of defective things (Article 1384 of the civil Code)

The victim should prove its damage and a causal relationship, just like in the previous fault-based liability regime. However, in this case, the victim can limit itself to proving a malfunctioning in the AV, rather than proving a wrongful behaviour of the AV user.

This solves the question raised by the previous regime but raises a new one, e.g. how do you prove a malfunctioning when the accident is the result of an algorithmic decision, which in turn could potentially be the outcome of machine learning?

3. The product liability regime (law of 25 February 1991 on product liability)

This regime is similar to the second liability regime as the victim must prove its damage, a malfunctioning of the AV and a causal relationship between these two aspects. However, in this case, the victim will seek compensation against the manufacturer, not the driver.

Furthermore, the compensable damage will be limited to personal injuries (including moral damage) and, subject to certain conditions, damages to property. Other types of damage (e.g. loss of opportunity) are not recoverable under this specific liability regime.

4. The insurance liability (Article 29bis of the law of 28 November 1989 on compulsory motor vehicles liability insurance).

Once a vehicle is involved in an accident, “weak users” (e.g. pedestrians and cyclists) may obtain compensation from the car insurer for the damages resulting from this accident.

In this case too, recoverable types of damage are limited. They only cover personal injuries or death, as well as damage to clothing (quite oddly).

What’s next?

Vehicles are becoming more and more autonomous. Level 5 (fully autonomous) AVs are still prohibited at this stage but their eventual arrival on the market will generate liability questions for which our legal system is not well equipped.

They will change the fault-based paradigm and we anticipate that a dedicated liability regime (e.g. based on the mere use of the AV) will be needed to complement our existing legal framework. We at Simont Braun will closely follow up on this and keep you posted.

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For any question, please contact the authors:

Thomas Dervaltd@simontbraun.eu
David-Alexandre Sauvagedas@simontbraun.eu

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Simont Braun assists Test Achats in its class action against Ryanair

Simont Braun is representing Test Achats which seeks to receive compensation for passengers who were victims of repeated strikes by the Ryanair staff in summer 2018. The total compensation is estimated at € 16 million.

Simont Braun filed the collective action this morning with the French-speaking Business Court of Brussels (see the press coverage by the RTBF at 6’04” and the VRT at 8’30”).

We now expect a judgment on the admissibility of the claim. A time-period will then start to allow Test Achats and Ryanair to negotiate. If they reach an agreement, the latter will be subject to approval by the Court. If not, the case will be pleaded on the merits.

This class action is the 8th of its kind in Belgium since the entry into force of the law in 2014. It will raise landmark consumer law questions and high-end cross-border procedural issues.

The Simont Braun team representing Test Achats is led by Rafaël Jafferali and includes Charles-Edouard Lambert and Marc Baetens-Spetschinsky.

Needless to say, we will keep you informed of the next developments.

La représentation en justice par un agent d’affaires en cas de petit litige

Un passager cherchant à être indemnisé par une compagnie aérienne pour cause d’annulation ou de retard de son vol peut-il être représenté par un agent d’affaires ?

Marc Baetens-Spetchinsky analyse cette question au regard du Règlement européen sur les petits litiges, abordant aussi la notion de « circonstances extraordinaires » au sens du Règlement européen « droits des passagers » que les compagnies aériennes pourraient invoquer pour se défendre contre une demande d’indemnisation.

Publication parue dans le Journal des Juges de Paix, 3-4/2019, p. 152, disponible ici.

UBO Register – Important updates in the FAQ document

An important update of the UBO Register FAQ document has been published by the Federal Public Service Finance on 2 April 2019. It provides a number of clarifications on the scope of the regulations, notably with respect to the notion of senior managing official, the situation in case of a usufruct / bare ownership, co-ownership, shareholders’ agreements… It also confirms that UBOs will have the right to know who consults their data. The updated FAQ document is available here: http://bit.ly/QandA-ubo

For any question, please contact Sandrine Hirsch or Nikita Tissot.

The final text of the new Companies Code has been published

Today has been published the Law of 23 March 2019 introducing the Code of companies and associations and amending certain other regulations (notably the Law on takeover bids). The final text is now available here.

For any assistance, please contact Sandrine Hirsch or Nikita Tissot.