In 2019, a self-driving Tesla in Miami drove under the trailer of an 18-wheeler big rig truck that had turned onto the road. This incident led to the death of Stephen Banner. A Florida court has ruled that the automotive company was aware of defects in its Autopilot system that led to the accident. As such, Judge Reid Scott, in the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County, has found that the case can now proceed to trial.
The judge stated that Tesla had “engaged in a marketing strategy that painted the products as autonomous”. Further, Elon Musk, the CEO, public utterances regarding the technology “had a significant effect on the belief about the capabilities of the products.”
It was a Tesla Model 3 that was involved in the fatal crash. Mr Banner’s wife accused the company of intentional misconduct and gross negligence. Now that the matter proceeds to full trial, Tesla is exposed to punitive damages claims from the plaintiff.
Autopilot Defect Not New
Judge Scott also determined that Banner’s wife should have the opportunity to present the argument to the jurors that Tesla’s warnings in its manuals and “clickwrap” agreements were insufficient. He highlighted the striking resemblance of the accident to a 2016 fatal crash involving Joshua Brown. In this case, the Autopilot system failed to detect crossing trucks.
“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,” the judge wrote. Earlier in the year, Tesla had successfully argued against two product liability trials in California. The trials were also related to its Autopilot driver assistant system. The judge in Florida noted that complaints facing the system are not “dissimilar”.
This trial is a setback to both Tesla and Elon Musk. Tesla’s growth in unit sales of its cars and SUVs has lagged. The launch of its Cybertruck pickup has not been eye-catching. Recently, the company has been forced to slash prices for its Model 3 and Model Y. For Musk, this is another drawback after major advertisers pulled their Ads from X.