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Tesla Autopilot Faces Scrutiny in First Trial Over Fatal Crash

Tesla Autopilot Faces Scrutiny in First Trial Over Fatal Crash
A Tesla Model S car equipped with Autopilot in Palo Alto, California pictured on Wednesday, 14 October 2015.

Tesla Inc. is headed to trial in southern California to defend itself against claims that its Autopilot driver-assistance technology is to blame for a fatal crash.

The jury trial set for opening arguments Thursday in Riverside County and another scheduled for Oct. 6 in Palm Beach County, Florida, are the first among several in coming months which will test Elon Musk’s mantra that Teslas are the safest cars ever made.

A finding that the electric-car maker is culpable for deaths would imperil the billionaire’s quest to lead the way for fully self-driving cars to cruise down busy city streets and freeways. As the global auto industry shifts to electrification, the promise of autonomy is a crucial part of Tesla’s efforts to differentiate itself and a significant factor in its valuation of about $750 billion.

Tesla is already under scrutiny in lawsuits and investigations by consumers, investors, regulators, car safety advocates, state agencies and federal prosecutors over allegations that the company has over-hyped its progress toward hands-free driving. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has active probes into whether Autopilot is defective linked to at least 17 deaths since June 2021.

Read More: Tesla Fatal-Crash Lawsuit to Test Musk’s Autopilot Claims

A key issue in the trials is whether the marketing of Autopilot has lulled drivers into a false sense of security, leading them to think their cars would drive themselves. Tesla will be a formidable adversary, having prevailed this year in its first trial over a non-fatal Autopilot crash when a Los Angeles jury rejected a woman’s claim that the driver-assistance system caused her Model S to veer into the center median of a city street.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming trials, both of which are expected to last several weeks.

California Case: Sept. 28 Trial

Tesla is fighting claims that it’s at fault for a 2019 crash when a Model 3 in Autopilot mode suddenly changed direction and swerved off a freeway, bursting into flames and killing the driver after it hit a tree.

The family of the deceased driver and two passengers who were badly hurt are seeking unspecified monetary damages, including for loss of life, physical injury and emotional distress.

Tesla has argued in filings that the driver was under the influence of alcohol and there is “zero evidence that the Autopilot system had anything to do with this crash.”

“Even multi-billion dollar corporations like Tesla can’t sidestep responsibility in the courtroom,” said Jonathan Michaels, a lawyer for the passengers, Lindsay Molander and Parker Austin. “We trust the jury to recognize this and deliver the justice that our clients so rightly deserve.”

Tesla and its attorneys didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Florida Case: Oct. 6 Trial

Tesla is fighting claims that it’s responsible for a crash involving a Model 3 that plowed into the underbelly of a tractor-trailer 10 seconds after the driver switched on Autopilot.

In its defense, the company has echoed a federal safety regulator’s finding that the driver was over-relying on automation and not paying attention — despite clear warnings in the vehicle owner’s manual and Tesla’s website that Autopilot requires active driver supervision.

The family of the deceased driver, Jeremy Banner, claims he’s a victim of reckless marketing by Tesla that has led drivers to trust its software too much.

The trial is expected to feature testimony from Tesla engineers who may reveal previously undisclosed details on Autopilot’s development and Musk’s involvement in honing it.

A Palm Beach County judge spared Musk from being questioned in the case last year after a lawyer for the Banner family argued the Tesla chief executive officer has “unique knowledge” of the issues in dispute.

A ruling is expected soon on the family’s request to pursue punitive damages, which could increase a payout exponentially.

Here’s a list of pending cases over fatal Tesla crashes linked to Autopilot:

Plaintiff Crash details Court Filing date Status
Lindsay Molander, Parker Austin and family of Micah Lee In 2019, Lee’s Model S veered off a Southern California freeway, hit a palm tree and burst into flames Superior Court of California, Riverside County June 2020 Jury trial in progress

 

Family of Jeremy Banner In 2019, Banner’s Tesla Model 3 plowed into the underbelly of a tractor-trailer crossing a divided highway in Florida 15th Judicial Circuit Court, Palm Beach, Florida August 2019 Jury trial set for Oct. 6
Family of Jovani Maldonado In 2019, Maldonado died in the passenger seat of his father’s pickup truck that was hit by a Model 3 on a freeway near San Francisco Superior Court of California, Alameda County February 2021 Jury trial set for Feb. 13
Family of Walter Huang In 2018, Walter Huang’s Model X ran into a concrete barrier on a freeway near San Francisco Superior Court of California, Santa Clara County April 2019 Jury trial set for March 18
Family of Naibel Benavides and Dillon Angulo In 2019, Benavides was killed and Angulo was injured while standing next to their parked car that was struck by a Model S at a T-intersection in Florida US District Court in Miami

 

May 2021

 

 

Jury trial set for March 11

 

 

Family of Derrick and Jenna Monet In 2019, Derrick Monet was injured and his wife Jenna died when their Tesla Model 3 crashed into the rear end of a stationary firetruck on a freeway in Indiana US District Court in San Jose, California February

2022

Court to set trial date

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