Tesla Wins First U.S. Jury Trial Involving Fatal Autopilot Crash
Tesla has won the first Autopilot trial in the U.S., a major victory for the automaker that faces several other lawsuits and federal investigations related to its advanced driver-assistance system.
The civil lawsuit filed in Riverside County Superior Court alleged Tesla’s ADAS caused a Model 3 to suddenly veer off a highway east of Los Angeles at 65 miles per hour, hit a palm tree and burst into flames.
The 2019 crash killed owner Micah Lee and seriously injured two passengers, court documents show according to Reuters. The trial involved gruesome testimony about the injuries sustained by the passengers, which included a then 8-year-old boy who was disemboweled.
The plaintiffs – the two surviving passengers – asked the jury for $400 million plus punitive damages, accusing Tesla of knowing that the Autopilot feature and other safety systems were defective when it sold the car.
Tesla denied liability, saying Lee consumed alcohol before driving. The company also noted it was unclear whether Autopilot was engaged when the accident happened.
After four days of deliberations, the 12-member jury announced they found the vehicle did not have a manufacturing defect; the vote was 9-3 in Tesla’s favor. The verdict appears to support Tesla’s arguments that the ultimate responsibility rests with drivers when something goes wrong on the road.
“The jury’s conclusion was the right one,” the company said in a statement, adding that its cars are well designed and make the roads safer.
Jonathan Michaels, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed in the verdict but noted in a statement that Tesla was “pushed to its limits” during the trial. “The jury’s prolonged deliberation suggests that the verdict still casts a shadow of uncertainty,” he said.
Tesla claims it is informing drivers that its technology requires human monitoring, although using the “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” names may suggest otherwise.
The verdict in the Riverside case represents Tesla’s second big win this year, in which juries have declined to find that its software was defective. The EV maker won an earlier trial in Los Angeles in April about an accident where a Model S swerved into the curb and injured its driver.
In that case, jurors told Reuters after the verdict that they believed driver distraction was to blame since Tesla had warned drivers about its system.
In other lawsuits, plaintiffs have alleged Autopilot led drivers to misuse the system because it is defectively designed. Mind you, the jury in Riverside was only asked to evaluate whether a manufacturing defect impacted the steering.
Tesla’s legal woes with Autopilot are far from over, though. The company is also facing federal investigations related to Autopilot, including a criminal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice over claims its vehicles can drive themselves.
The EV maker is also being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the performance of Autopilot. The NHTSA identified more than a dozen crashes in which Tesla EVs hit stationary emergency vehicles.
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