A jury found Tesla Inc just 1% responsible for the death of a teenager who crashed a Model S into a wall at high speed, concluding that the 18-year-old and his father were 99% to blame for the 2018 accident.
The verdict on July 19 in US federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, follows the first trial the electric-car maker faced over a fatal accident involving one of its electric cars.
The family of Barrett Riley sought to prove the company played a role in his death when service technicians removed a speed-limiting feature from the Model S that they’d previously installed at the request of his mother.
Barrett and his friend sitting in the passenger seat, also 18, were killed when he lost control of the vehicle at 116 miles per hour (187kmph) and crashed into a concrete wall of a Fort Lauderdale house in 2018.
Tesla faces a spate of lawsuits and regulatory probes over accidents linked to its Autopilot driver assistance feature. The first trial among those cases is scheduled for September in Florida state court in Palm Beach County.
Lawyers for Barrett’s father, James Riley, had argued Tesla should have gotten his authorisation – as the car’s owner – to remove the speed limiter, which was activated shortly after the teen got a ticket for going 112mph in a 50mph zone. The limiter was programmed to prevent the Model S from going faster than 85mph.
Tesla’s attorneys argued that Barrett got Tesla staff to remove the limiter by when he returned to the service centre after the car was worked on. Testimony by Barrett’s friends showed that the teen went there to “trick” a Tesla technician into deactivating the limiter and bragged to his buddies about it, Bob Rudock, an attorney for Tesla, said at closing arguments.
“A driver makes the car safe, the speed limiter does not,” Rudock told jurors.
James Riley testified that he’d been one of Tesla’s earliest Model S customers in 2010 and had remained loyal the company, buying several more Teslas over the years for his family with seven children. He also said Barrett was a big fan of Musk’s and planned to attend Purdue University starting in the fall of 2018 in hopes of eventually landing an engineering internship with Tesla.
The father recalled for jurors that he spoke to Elon Musk on the phone days after the Tesla chief executive officer first emailed him, unexpectedly, in the aftermath of the crash. Riley said the billionaire admitted on the call that it was a mistake for Tesla to remove the limiter without his permission. Tesla’s lawyers denied that’s how the conversation went and Musk didn’t testify at the trial.
What Musk said on the call was the “clincher”, Curtis Miner, an attorney for Riley, told jurors at closing arguments, as he urged them to find that Tesla “bears the most substantial fault”.
A claim that a defect in the car’s battery caused it to explode in flames at the crash scene was dismissed before the trial started.
The six-person jury was asked to apportion blame for the accident in its verdict.
The panel found Tesla to be 1% negligent, while Barrett, his father and his mother were gauged to be 90%, 9% and 0% responsible, respectively. It concluded that Riley and his wife, Jenny, sustained US$10.5mil (RM46.75mil) in pain and suffering damages from their son’s death.
Tesla’s attorneys didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
“We are pleased that, in what we understand to be the first case to go to trial against Tesla involving an accident involving one of their vehicles, the jury found Tesla to have been negligent in removing the speed limiter without letting Mr or Mrs Riley know,” Miner said in a statement.
Riley’s communication with Musk led Tesla to put out 2018 software update for the limiter feature to let drivers set a maximum speed between 50mph and 90mph. Language was added to the owner’s manual saying the feature was overhauled in memory of Barrett Riley.
Given that James Riley pushed Tesla to enhance the speed limiter function, “we hope the legacy of this case has been to prevent other accidents and save lives,” Miner said. – Bloomberg