Has GoPro’s Voluntary “Karma” Refund Program Revealed a Gap in Regulatory Jurisdiction over Commercial and Private Drones?

Joey Novak, MJLST Staffer

Drones in the year 2016 are involved in everything from assisting law enforcement to recordings at weddings and sporting events to even the potential for package delivery, and as such, have been rapidly expanding further into recreational and commercial settings. Drones also have one of the most imaginably widespread liability palates you could think of, as 4th Amendment, privacy, property, and products liability issues all combine to form the Frankenstein’s monster of liability, that is if that monster was also subject to 152 pages of operational FAA regulation because he could fly.

With such a wide breadth of hot topic liability issues, it’s not surprising that what should be the most common issue for commercial use has been somewhat overlooked: product liability.  On November 8th, GoPro announced the “recall” of 2,500 Karma drones after the $800 drone had only been on the market for two weeks. Apparently, the design of an off-center camera placement led to increased vibration, leading to connectivity issues and in turn, drones unexpectedly falling out of the sky. Although no actual injuries have been reported, one does not have to make a large leap to imagine a falling drone leading to injury and subsequent liability issues.

The interesting thing about this “recall” is that it revealed a regulatory gap between the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) for drone product liability. With the FAA taking over regulation of drones with their Part 107 regulations released in June of this year, a CPSC spokesperson has stated simply that “[w]e do not have jurisdiction over drones.” But while the FAA does regulate manufacturing of larger aircraft through a certificate process, its oversight of drones to this point has been restricted to operational issues, not the classic manufacturing or design defects that lie at the heart of products liability. Both agencies ended up “recommending” that GoPro proceed with their refund program, and GoPro has stated that they are working “in close coordination” with both agencies. However, GoPro was not actually required to report to either agency or participate in any government-mandated recall program.

Now with drones falling out of the sky, GoPro was greatly self-incentivized to get their products off of the market to avoid what would be pretty cut-and-dry liability in the event that any injuries actually did occur. But what if a potential issue with drones was not so obviously open to liability? Commercial drone companies could unilaterally decide to keep their products on the market if they determine that whatever injury that is occurring may, for example, be more of a result of user error rather than a classic manufacturing or design defect. Companies would then take their chances with potential suits, and the absence of an agency-mandated reporting and recall program could actually assist companies in their defense, as companies would only need to fulfill their post-sale duty to warn about the product’s dangers rather than recall the product entirely.

Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 11 imposes liability for failure to recall pursuant to a governmental directive, but in the absence of such a government-mandated requirement a company can only be liable in recall if they decide to voluntarily recall the product and are negligent in doing so. This governmental requirement stems from the thought that, as the Michigan Supreme Court puts it, “the duty to repair or recall is more properly a consideration for administrative agencies and the Legislature.” In fact, as comment c. to the Restatement states, “voluntary recalls are typically undertaken in the anticipation that a government agency will require one anyway.”

If no government agency is requiring recall or repair for drones, companies are presumably left to make the counter-policy determination of whether the cost of potential liability from public injury outweighs the costs associated with repair or recall. While such a determination may require more than this cost-benefit vacuum (such as shareholder relations, consumer goodwill, future sales & outlook, etc.), government-mandated recall programs are put in place to prevent companies from having to weigh costs against public safety. GoPro certainly did the “right thing” here by swiftly engaging in a voluntary refund program (maybe they just wanted some good “Karm- ah forget it), but look for Congress to clarify agency jurisdiction over drone recalls in the near future to protect recreational and commercial drone producers against themselves.

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