Despite two previous court victories, Tesla settles third Autopilot liability case

Amount sealed because it would result in 'serious injury,' say company lawyers

Tesla has settled an outstanding Autopilot fatality lawsuit before the case could end up before a jury, but on the condition that the settlement amount never sees the light of day.

Lawyers for Tesla asked [PDF] Judge Lori Pegg of the California Superior Court for the County of Santa Clara to seal specifics of the settlement with the family of late Apple engineer and Tesla owner Walter Huang, who died in 2018 when his Model X accelerated into a barrier while under the control of Autopilot.

According to Tesla lawyer Thomas Branigan, the settlement amount could be perceived "as evidence of Tesla's potential liability for losses, which may have a chilling effect on settlement opportunity in subsequent cases." Branigan said Tesla would suffer serious injury if the settlement amount was not withheld, and his motion appears to have been granted based on court documents.

There's plenty of unknowns in a situation like this, in which Tesla chose to settle the matter a mere day before jury selection was set to begin. Nonetheless, it's the first settlement in an Autopilot-related case for Tesla, which so far has prevailed in court on both cases that went before a jury.

Tesla emerged victorious in an Autopilot injury case and a second trial involving the death of a Model 3 owner and serious injuries to two passengers, both heard in California. In both instances, jurors decided that Tesla had adequately disclosed Autopilot's functionality and that the company wasn't at fault.

Musk's lawyers tried to avoid his being deposed in the Huang case by arguing that any of his past statements about Autopilot could have been deepfaked videos, and thus couldn't be trusted or treated as evidence of liability. 

Why the automaker ultimately chose to settle this matter isn't clear, though a protracted court battle would mean more bad publicity at a time when Tesla and Musk's reputations are foundering.

Interestingly enough, Musk made the case in 2022 that Tesla would never abandon a legal fight if the case was unjust. Taken at face value, that means Tesla might not have been able to prevail at trial despite trying to pull Apple into the loop by getting the company to provide records that it alleged may have shown Huang was playing games on his phone at the time of the accident, thus lessening Tesla's potential liability.

"We will never seek victory in a just case against us, even if we will probably win," Musk said on Twitter in 2022. Conversely, "we will never surrender/settle an unjust case against us, even if we will probably lose."

We asked Tesla what it had to say about the settlement in light of Musk's previous statements, but haven't heard back.

Tesla is still facing multiple Autopilot-related fatality cases across the US, with a 2019 Florida death set for trial sometime this year and a second Autopilot-related death in Florida currently in court. ®

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