A landmark trial has kicked off in a California state court this week, marking the first legal battle in the United States over allegations that Tesla’s Autopilot feature played a role in a fatal accident. Tesla was successful and found not liable in another trial involving Autopilot earlier this year, but that case involved only injuries, not a fatality.
This case revolves around an incident in which Micah Lee, the owner of a Tesla Model 3, lost his life. Lee’s vehicle allegedly veered off a highway near Los Angeles, hit a palm tree, and erupted in flames, all while traveling at 65mph (105km/h). The crash also left his two passengers, including an 8-year-old boy, with serious injuries.
The lawsuit, filed against Tesla by the victims and Lee’s estate, contends that Tesla was aware of defects in its Autopilot and safety systems when it sold the vehicle. Jonathan Michaels, the plaintiffs’ attorney, argued that Tesla should never have marketed experimental vehicles to consumers. Lee had purchased Tesla’s “full self-driving capability package” in 2019, but at the time, the system was still in a “beta” testing phase, indicating that it was not yet suitable for public use. (via Reuters)
Tesla, on the other hand, denies any liability and claims that Lee had consumed alcohol before the accident. The company also questions whether Autopilot was active at the time of the crash.
This case is particularly significant because it challenges Tesla’s marketing and safety practices surrounding its Autopilot technology. Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD) systems have been under regulatory and legal scrutiny, with CEO Elon Musk emphasizing their importance for the company’s future.
As we noted, Tesla has already won a significant trial by asserting that drivers are explicitly informed that their technology necessitates human supervision. The jurors in that case attributed driver distraction as the primary cause of the accident.
However, the current trial carries higher stakes due to the loss of life. Tesla and the plaintiffs’ attorneys have engaged in legal maneuvering, with Tesla succeeding in excluding certain public statements made by Elon Musk about Autopilot.
As the trial unfolds in Riverside County Superior Court, it is expected to span several weeks, drawing attention not only from the legal community but also from those with a vested interest in the future of self-driving technology and automotive safety. The verdict in this case could set a precedent for how similar incidents are litigated in the future, influencing the trajectory of autonomous vehicles in the United States.