Tesla swerves liability in Autopilot death lawsuit
Cali jury decides 9-3 Muskmobile maker wasn't at fault when Model 3 veered into tree and exploded
Tesla has prevailed in a crucial Autopilot death lawsuit in the US, with a jury today deciding the automaker's software wasn't at fault in a 2019 accident that killed a Model 3 owner and seriously injured two of passengers.
Returning a verdict nine to three in favor of Tesla not being at fault, jurors in the city of Riverside, California, decided if there were any defects in Autopilot, as alleged, they weren't the cause of Micah Lee's death when his Model 3 veered off a highway in east Los Angeles, a little over a month after he purchased it.
According to a third amended complaint [PDF] in the case against Tesla, Lee's Model 3 veered sharply off the road at 65 MPH, crashing into a tree and bursting into flames. "Prior to impacting the palm tree, decedent Micah Lee attempted to, but could not, regain control," the suit alleged.
"Had the vehicle's Autopilot and/or Active Safety features operated properly, decedent Micah Lee's death would have been avoided," attorneys for the two surviving passengers claimed.
"Tesla’s Model 3’s Autopilot and/or Active Safety features were defective and not ready for market, yet Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk advertised, presented, and maintained it as if it was."
Tesla argued in the case it wasn't liable for the accident, as Lee had allegedly consumed alcohol before driving, and also claimed it wasn't sure if Autopilot was even engaged let alone defective as described. The US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration logs extensive data on automated driver assist-related accidents, though no data is included from before 2021, so Lee's crash isn't included for easy reference.
Tesla didn't respond to questions for this story, and lawyers for the plaintiffs confirmed the verdict to The Register, in the absence of jury forms yet being published to Riverside County Superior Court's website. They didn't offer additional comment on the case or if there are any plans to appeal.
It's beginning to look a lot like precedent
This case, Molander v. Tesla (California Superior Court case number RIC20022469) isn't the only lawsuit Tesla is facing over an Autopilot fatality, with the family of Jeremy Banner, who died in another 2019 accident, suing the automaker for his death after he slammed into a tractor-trailer crossing the flow of traffic.
Tesla engineers in that suit testified that Autopilot was released without the ability to detect cross-traffic, and that no changes were made to Autopilot software after a near-identical fatal 2016 crash that left a driver dead.
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Lawyers in the Molander case made much the same argument as the one that follows from the testimony of Tesla engineers, namely that Tesla was well aware of Autopilot defects that rendered it unsafe in some circumstances.
When it comes to vehicles with driver assist technology, Tesla is the leader in fatal accidents by far, accounting for more than 70 percent of the automated driver assist technology accidents logged by the NHTSA. Tesla is facing multiple investigations at the state and federal level into the safety of its self-driving technology.
Nonetheless, Tesla's win in this case is the second time it's managed to avoid liability for an accident involving Autopilot. In April it won a jury trial brought by a driver hurt when their Tesla allegedly swerved onto a curb.
Los Angeles resident Justine Hsu claimed her curb collision broke her jaw, caused her to lose several teeth, and left her with nerve damage. The jury in that case awarded Hsu zero damages, saying Tesla adequately disclosed Autopilot's full functionality.
The outcome of Hsu's trial was non-precedential, though legal experts said in April the case could become a bellwether for Tesla; with a second win under its belt, it's starting to look like that's definitely the case. ®