Tesla's fatal autopilot crash: Family may have grounds to sue

On July 6, the Guardian featured a piece in which legal experts suggested that the family of Joshua Brown—the man who on May 7, 2016, was killed in a fatal collision while traveling in his Tesla Model S vehicle—may have grounds to sue the innovative automaker.

On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown was killed when the Tesla vehicle in which he was travelling failed to respond to an abrupt change in traffic during ‘autopilot’ mode and collided with the side of a truck before careening off the shoulder of the road. Following the collision, questions remain as to whether Brown was watching a portable DVD player at the time of the collision, while investigators have determined that neither Brown nor his vehicle’s operating system took any evasive actions just prior to the collision. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration is conducting an ongoing investigation of the crash.

In response to recent media coverage of the event, Tesla published a blog post in which the automaker described its autopilot feature as more of a “traffic-aware cruise control” than a traditional autonomous operating system, and reiterated its warning to motorists to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times during autopilot operation—a warning made apparent to motorists by visual alerts and mechanical slowing the vehicle until the driver’s hands are detected. Further, Tesla stressed that the autopilot feature present in vehicles like the one involved in the fatal crash is “disabled by fault and requires specific acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.” Despite Tesla’s recent efforts to point out the shortcomings and operator-dependent nature of their burgeoning technology, the company—through founder Elon Musk—has a history of touting its autopilot feature as “probably better than humans at this point in highway driving.”

Despite these warnings, some legal experts believe that the deceased’s family will have a strong case against Tesla. Anthony Johnson, CEO of the American Injury Attorney Group, says that Brown’s family “absolutely” has a product liability case against the automaker, based on whether Brown “was adequately warned about the potential defects in the system.” According to Johnson, the family will likely argue that “whatever warnings may have been offered, the driver may have been led to believe the system was more capable than it was.” What’s more, according to Johnson, “the term ‘autopilot’ has been used for decades and is understood by the masses as a situation whereby the machine (typically airplanes until recently) pilots the vehicle for the operator. . . you cant sell something at the grocery store that looks like a tomato and is labeled tomato and place in the fine print that its actually a grape.”

Despite this view, not all legal experts believe that Brown’s family has such a strong claim. Farid Yaghoubtil, a personal injury attorney in Los Angeles, said that “If there was a sensor, if [Tesla] had the safety features in place and [Brown] ignored them, it would make a huge difference in being able to pursue a case, because at that point [Tesla would be able to shift] the burden from themselves to the user.”

Examining the legal response likely to be levied by Tesla, Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor  at the University of South Carolina, said that the automaker will likely “point to warnings they gave on prior use, point to the fact that this was a beta that required supervision, argue that the acts of the driver was the predominant cause of the crash” in trying to argue that Brown was at least partly culpable for his death. Ultimately, says Smith, the case will come down to reasonableness, with a jury asked to determine “was Tesla reasonable , was its design reasonable, was the driver reasonable?” 

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