Florida judge finds Tesla, Elon Musk aware of defective Autopilot system

There is “reasonable evidence” to conclude that Tesla and its executives, including CEO Elon Musk, knew its vehicles had defective Autopilot systems but still allowed the cars to be driven in areas that “unsafe for that technology,” a Florida judge found.

Last week’s ruling from Judge Reid Scott, of the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County, means the family of a man who died in a crash while his Tesla’s Autopilot was engaged can go to trial and seek punitive damages. from Tesla for willful misconduct and gross. negligence. Reuters first reported the news.

The hit to Tesla comes after the electric vehicle maker won two product liability lawsuits in California earlier this year over the safety of its Autopilot system. Autopilot is Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system that can perform automated driving tasks such as navigating on and off highway ramps, cruise control, lane changes and automatic parking.

The Florida case is the result of a 2019 crash north of Miami. Owner Stephen Banner’s Model 3 drove under the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck that veered off the road, clipping the roof of the Tesla and killing Banner. A trial scheduled for October has been delayed, and has not yet been rescheduled.

If the case goes to trial, it could reveal new information about the reams of data Tesla collects, information that is usually secret.

Judge Scott’s finding that Tesla’s top managers were aware of the defects could also mean Musk will have to testify. The judge said Tesla’s marketing strategy painted the products as autonomous and Musk’s public statements about Autopilot “had a significant impact on beliefs about the capabilities of the products,” according to the decision. The judge pointed to a misleading 2016 video, which found Musk in charge, showing a Tesla driven completely autonomously with the Autopilot system.

The billionaire businessman was not required to sit for a deposition after a judge rejected Banners’ argument that Musk had “unique knowledge” of the issues in the case.

The judge compared Banner’s crash to a similar 2016 fatal crash involving Joshua Brown in which Autopilot failed to detect trucks crossing, leading to the car crashing into the side of a tractor trailer at high speed. The judge also based his finding on the testimony given by Autopilot engineer Adam Gustafsson and Dr. Mary “Missy” Cummings, director of the Autonomy and Robotics Center at George Mason University.

Gustafsson, who was the investigator of the collision between Banner and Brown, testified that Autopilot in both cases failed to recognize the semitractor and stop the vehicle. The engineer further testified that even though Tesla was aware of the problem, no changes were made to the cross traffic detection warning system from the date of Brown’s crash to Banner’s crash to account for it. the cross traffic.

The judge wrote in his decision that the testimony of other Tesla engineers led to the reasonable conclusion that Musk, who was “closely involved” in the development of Autopilot, was “well aware” of the problem and failed to solve it.

A Tesla spokesman could not be reached for comment.

As Tesla has done in the past, the automaker will likely argue that Banner’s crash was the result of human error. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the accident found fault with the tour – according to the investigation, the truck driver failed to yield the right lane and Banner was negligent due to over-reliance on Autopilot. But the NTSB also found that Autopilot did not send a visual or audible warning to the driver to put his hands back on the wheel, according to the Bloomberg.

Tesla’s lawyers can rely on the precedent set in two previous cases this year, in which the automaker emerged victorious.

In April, Tesla scored a victory after a California jury found the automaker not to blame for a 2019 crash involving Autopilot. Plaintiff Justine Hsu sued Tesla in 2020 for fraud, negligence and breach of contract, but was awarded no damages.

A few weeks ago, a jury sided with Tesla over allegations that Autopilot led to the death of Tesla driver Micah Lee in 2019. The two plaintiffs, who survived the crash, alleged that Tesla knew that its product was defective and sought $400 million in damages. Tesla argued that the crash was the result of human error.

The case – No. 50-2019-CA-009962 – tried in the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County, Florida.

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