Tesla’s boldly-named Autopilot system has become a controversial feature thanks to a number of fatal incidents in which the driving assist has been implicated. The matter has landed the automaker in court. Tesla is alleged to have allowed the system to be used despite significant flaws in its performance. Now, a judge has come out to say that there is reasonable evidence the automaker was well aware of the problems prior to certain tragic incidents.
As covered by Reuters, the case concerns a fatal crash from 2019, involving owner Stephen Banner. Banner was killed when his Tesla Model 3, under Autopilot command, drove under the trailer of an 18-wheeler semi-truck that had pulled onto the road in front of the vehicle. The crash sheared the roof off the Model 3, with Banner suffering fatal injuries as a result.
Banner’s wife brought a lawsuit over the crash, alleging that Autopilot failed to take any evasive action to avoid the accident. In response, Tesla denied liability, claiming Autopilot to be safe and fit for purpose when properly supervised. In documents submitted to the court, it noted the requirement that drivers must pay attention while driving and keep their hands on the wheel. Notably, though, Banner’s attorneys were able to depose Tesla executives, securing internal documents that they believed indicated Musk and Tesla were aware of Autopilot’s limitations before the crash.
Now, it appears that Judge Reid Scott may agree. Presiding over the Circuit Court in Palm Beach County, Scott ruled that the case could proceed to trial, with the plaintiff able to bring punitive damages against Tesla for gross negligence and intentional misconduct regarding the matter. Scott noted the case was “eerily similar” to a previous fatal crash which claimed the life of Joshua Brown, when his Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor-trailer while under Autopilot control. Scott’s overall opinion of the matter is, thus far, quite damning. “It would be reasonable to conclude that the Defendant Tesla through its CEO and engineers was acutely aware of the problem with the ‘Autopilot’ failing to detect cross traffic,” Scott said on the matter.
Tesla’s attitude towards marketing and promoting Autopilot is at the root of the issue. Judge Scott found that the automaker “engaged in a marketing strategy that painted the products as autonomous,” something that was readily reflected in the attitudes of many owners towards the system. Scott laid the blame for this to a degree at Musk’s door, claiming that his public statements “had a significant effect on the belief about the capabilities of the products.” A 2016 promotional video was also cited by Scott, which claimed the Tesla vehicle involved was driving itself.
It’s early days yet, with the case yet to proceed to trial; it was originally supposed to begin in October but has yet to be properly rescheduled. If it’s found that Tesla was negligent in its promotion and delivery of an unsafe Autopilot system, it could be liable for damages not just in this case, but in all manner of other crashes in recent years.
However, Tesla won’t be playing softball when the case moves ahead. It will be coming off a recent victory in California, where a jury found 9-3 that the company was not responsible for the death of Micah Lee in 2019. Lee passed away after his Model 3 veered off the road into a tree, reportedly while under the command of Autopilot. However, the jury found for Tesla, with the company’s lawyers alleging the crash was down to human error. It followed on from a similar win in a case involving a non-fatal crash that was heard in California earlier this year.
This case would be bucking the trend if Tesla is found to be at fault. That could be a boon to other individuals that may be seeking restitution of their own from incidents involving potential Autopilot failures. Banner’s attorneys will have their work cut out as they battle what is likely a very seasoned legal team that has been fighting these cases before. Drivers, owners, and the auto industry at large will be watching this case as a bellwether for whether an automaker will be held responsible for the actions of its cars under so-called “self driving” control.
Image credits: Tesla, Tesla via YouTube screenshot