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You might be shocked to learn that the law isn’t always able to keep up with technology and innovations, especially as innovations come at such a rapid pace now compared to the Industrial Revolution.

OK, so you are not shocked.

We really didn’t think you would be. As technology has gotten faster, the rate at which invention and innovation happen has also increased dramatically, and there are certain parts of the law that just aren’t updated often enough to keep up with the change.

Tech Running Laps Around Law

One of the areas where this is especially stark is in the area of prosthetics. As prosthetic technology was first being developed decades ago, it was pretty clear that any cases involving damage to a prosthetic was considered a property damage case – much like vandalism to your car. After all, the technology was so basic that prosthetics weren’t really part of the human body, and basically were made with the same metal and plastic as your car. Both mechanical in nature.

But with prosthetic technology advancing in significant ways, these bionic replacement parts are becoming more and more intimately integrated into human bodies in that it becomes harder and harder, from a legal perspective, to continue considering damage to prosthetics as property damage anymore. As we discuss more permanent and human-like realism with prosthetics, the idea of advancing law from a property-damage to a personal-injury standpoint is becoming more prominent in many legal circles.

Prosthetics as Property

The idea that prosthetics would be part of property-damage claims has been the traditional stance since the first prosthetics came into regular commercial use following recent conflicts such as World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam Conflict. In those early days and years, prosthetics were not electrical but mechanical and were easily detachable and thus could be quickly considered a separate entity from the body because many prosthetics were affixed temporarily – often users took them off at bed time or only wore them as they needed to do a task or work.

Just like us with cell phones or tablets, prosthetics were considered tools that we used that might have been with us but were not part of us, which made them “property” and thus subject to vandalism in criminal law.

Prosthetics as Person

As technology has advanced, prosthetics have become more and more human-like and more and more personal to users. “My arm” takes a more human meaning to users now because electricity and computer sensors have made prosthetics feel more and more like human limbs, so much so that many of them are permanently affixed to the body now, as if they are actual limbs.

The science has progressed to the point that people with prosthetics can use their bionic arms and legs nearly as normally as their own human flesh, with limbs moving and acting according to the brain and electrical signals, and not by brute force of the user like past early versions. If someone hits a prosthetic with a bat today, chances are good the user will feel pain; that wasn’t happening with the past mechanical versions. It might be time to look at the pain sensation as a point for transitioning prosthetic law into a new category.

Legal Ramifications

From a legal perspective, there is a big difference in terms of sentencing and the level of the crime when considering prosthetic damage as a property-damage issue or a personal-injury issue.

Putting a dent in a prosthetic arm, for example, can be a misdemeanor and result in a few days of jail time and a fine for property damage; but if the prosthetic is considered part of the human body and not a separate entity, that dent become a “broken” arm, which falls under battery in the criminal code, which means months or years in jail compared to just days.

Where We Stand

At this point, however, prosthetics law has not been keeping up with the innovations. As prosthetics become more and more like human limbs – such as those which respond to electrical signals sent by the muscles, or those which can move according to the mind, much like real limbs – it becomes necessary to re-visit the idea of prosthetics as being exclusively a personal property case and look at situations where it crosses over into personal injury.

This particular topic came up recently at a legal conference at Oxford University in England, where three presenters brought up this topic and encouraged conversation among conference attendees to take a hard look at prosthetics law and develop new paradigms that can more accurately reflect the current advances in technology. So prosthetic damage can be handled in a way that is more consistent with standard legal practice regarding any human body part.