“The Computer Did It” Defense

February 13th, 2012

At ConOps, James Grimmelmann writes about the case of Pompeii Estates v. Consolidated Edison:

One reason that this approach is especially fruitful, I think, is that an important first wave of cases about computer software involved their internal use by corporations. So, for example, there’sPompeii Estates v. Consolidated Edison, which I use in my casebook for its invocation of a kind of “the computer did it” defense. Con Ed lost: It’s not a good argument that the negligent decision to turn off the plaintiff’s power came from a computer, any more than “Bob the lineman cut off your power, not Con Ed” would be. Asking why and when law will hold Con Ed as a whole liable requires a discussion about attributing particular qualities to it—philosophically, that discussion is a great bridge to asking when law will attribute the same qualities to Con Ed’s computer system.

This is a 1977 opinion. I’ll take a look. The first chapter of his book is available here, which discusses responsibility for computer errors.