Can Google Be Held Liable For Man Who Died Following Google Maps Over A Collapsed Bridge?
from the tragic-story dept
There’s a pretty well known scene from The Office, when Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) follows his GPS device’s instructions (incorrectly, obviously) and drives into a lake:
The writer of that scene says the inspiration was a number of stories of people doing exactly that. In fact, in the earlier days of Techdirt, we wrote about a number of such stories. And not just once. But many times. Many, many times. Many, many, many times. When it happened on The Office, it was funny. In some of the links here, when no one got hurt, it was also kind of funny. But… when someone ends up dying because of it, it’s not funny at all.
Tragically, though, it happened again last year, where Philip Paxson followed his GPS to a bridge that had collapsed a decade ago and was effectively non-existent, and had not been repaired. And now Paxson’s wife is suing. The story is making headlines because beyond suing the private property owners who own the property where the bridge had been, they’re suing Google, because Google Maps recommended Philip drive over the bridge.
The horrifying bit, to me, is the simple fact that there were allegedly no barriers or other warning signs telling people that the bridge was out (and had been for years). I could see that simple fact (if accurate), leading to serious problems for the property owners (the bridge was over private property, and apparently it was not the local government’s responsibility).
The Google part… however… seems like a long shot, legally speaking. The complaint is designed to tug at your heart strings, and everything about the situation seems unfortunate and tragic. But can Google be held liable? That’s a tougher argument to make, though the lawyers here try valiantly to do so.
Normally, though, all liability falls on the driver to be aware of their own surroundings and the road ahead of them. While the complaint, repeatedly, notes that he drove down this road late at night, when there was no external lighting and it was “pitch black” out, his car must have had headlights, which can be pretty bright. And if he was paying attention to the road in front of him, it seems like he should have noticed that a large section of the bridge was missing.
That said, the part that makes this slightly trickier, is that the complaint has clear evidence that Google was informed of the broken bridge, as a nearby resident had alerted the company to the issue using Google Maps’ “Suggest an Edit” feature, and the complaint shows an acknowledgement from Google to that resident that it had received her “suggested edit” (nearly two years before the accident.)
The complaint also shows another “suggested edit” after the accident, telling Google that someone had died there while following Google Maps. As the complaint notes, when the lawyers checked again in April of this year (nearly half a year after the accident), Google Maps still listed the non-existent bridge as drivable.
That’s pretty bad, no matter how you look at it, but I’m still not sure that it’s so bad that Google will be found liable. Google Maps tries to map the entire world, and it likely receives a very large number of edit requests on a regular basis, and not all of them are legit. Indeed, people have written about how sneaky competitors might use “suggest an edit” to harm a business. Which means that Google can’t just rely on the submitted data as accurate, and will likely often have to send someone out to check on these things. It seems likely that not everything gets checked, and the backlog may take a while. Also, the first “notification” in the complaint came in the midst of the COVID pandemic lockdowns, which makes me wonder if Google Maps checkers were less able to check on these things as well at the time.
On top of that, another photo in the complaint itself shows the bridge in daylight, which seems to suggest that while there may not have been barriers blocking the bridge, there did appear to be trees growing across the road. From the images in the complaint, the car ended up against the far wall in the image below. And you can see what appear to be trees, or very large weeds of some kind growing there, which he would have had to drive through to reach the hole if he was driving from that side. If, instead, he was somehow driving from the foreground side, the fact that his car ended up wedged against that far wall, might also suggest he was going quite fast for such a road.
Still, every bit of this story is tragic and unfortunate. The bridge should have been blocked off and clearly marked as non-existent. Google should have been better about responding to user requests to update the map to avoid showing that as a legitimate road.
But… it’s unclear to me that this raises to the level of negligence required for the case to succeed against Google.