Benjamin Mathews, ‘Potential Tort Liability for Personal Use of Drone Aircraft’

This paper examines potential tort liability associated with the private use of drone aircraft. The discussion presents issues that arise when the rights of one private individual to own and fly a drone conflict with another private individual’s right to be safe from trespass and invasions of privacy. Section II discusses modern use of drones in the consumer market and emphasizes the unique features of these aircraft that will present novel legal issues. Section III examines potential drone liability through the lens of existing tort causes of action. Additionally, this paper will analyze drones as a potential nuisance, including self-help abatement remedies available to an offended landowner. Although the focus will generally interfere unreasonably with another person’s use of drones. Finally, Section IV highlights the interplay between tort law and potential federal regulations, including the possibility of preemption. Scholars disagree about whether private drone aircraft regulations should be left to state or federal legislatures.

Private use of drone aircraft is part of the technological future, as the many beneficial uses of drones have ensured their place in our society. It has never been appropriate to spy on one’s neighbor who is sunbathing, and just because it is now possible to do so from a height of fifty feet while maintaining increased anonymity, the conduct is not deprived of its tortiousness. Similarly, existing tort laws probably address most invasions of privacy caused by drone aircraft. The areas where the law is least equipped to address private use of drone aircraft are trespasses to land, when a drone breaks the close of another person. The judiciary and legislature will have to decide the height at which drone flights remain privileged as an exercise of the right to travel in public airspace. This task may require a reexamination of current curtilage standards. As the next generation of robotic technology, drones have much to offer society. In order to balance expectations for appropriate use of these devices with reasonable and long-standing assumptions of privacy, it will be necessary to merge the most applicable aspects of existing tort law with a modern understanding of appropriate standards of conduct.

Mathews, Benjamin D, Potential Tort Liability for Personal Use of Drone Aircraft (August 1, 2015). St Mary’s Law Journal, Vol. 46:573, 2015.

First posted 2015-09-02 06:38:38

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