In a game-changing legal showdown, Tesla has emerged victorious in the United States’ first-ever trial concerning allegations of its Autopilot system’s involvement in a fatal accident. This milestone verdict is a pivotal moment for the electric vehicle giant as it grapples with various similar lawsuits nationwide.
The California trial revolved around a lawsuit by two passengers involved in a 2019 crash who accused Tesla of knowingly selling a car with a flawed Autopilot system. Tesla, on the other hand, argued that human error was the primary cause of the accident. A 12-member jury, after four days of deliberation, delivered a resounding verdict, finding no manufacturing defect in the vehicle. The decision favored Tesla with a 9-3 vote.
The lawsuit, filed in Riverside County Superior Court, contended that the Autopilot system played a role in a tragic incident in which a Model 3 suddenly veered off a highway, struck a palm tree, and burst into flames. The accident claimed the life of the vehicle’s owner and left passengers with severe injuries. The plaintiffs had initially sought damages totaling $400 million and punitive damages.
Tesla vehemently disavowed any responsibility and claimed that the driver had consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel. Furthermore, the company asserted that it remained unclear whether Autopilot was in operation during the crash.
Notably, this case deviated from other legal actions against Tesla, where plaintiffs argued that Autopilot’s design flaws led to misuse by drivers. In the Riverside trial, the jury focused on determining whether a manufacturing defect impacted the steering system.
During the trial, the plaintiff’s legal counsel introduced a 2017 internal Tesla safety analysis, which identified an “incorrect steering command” as a potential defect involving an “excessive” steering wheel angle. Tesla’s legal representation, however, contended that this analysis did not confirm a defect but was aimed at preemptively addressing any potential issues that might arise with the vehicle. Subsequently, Tesla implemented a system to prevent Autopilot from executing the maneuver that resulted in the crash.
This recent legal triumph follows an earlier victory in a Los Angeles trial, where Tesla effectively defended itself by highlighting its explicit advisory for drivers that its technology necessitates ongoing human oversight, regardless of the “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” nomenclature. In that case, a Model S swerved into a curb, causing injuries to the driver, and jurors concluded that Tesla had adequately informed drivers about its system, attributing the accident to driver distraction.
In essence, Tesla’s win underscores the intricate nature of such cases and the importance of distinguishing between manufacturing defects and misuse of the technology, offering insights into the legal challenges companies face at the forefront of advanced driver assistance technologies.