Several Tesla lawsuits have examined claims that drivers are at fault in Autopilot crashes.

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SAN FRANCISCO — As CEO Elon Musk stakes Tesla's future on autonomous driving, lawyers from California to Florida are hard at work developing the company's most common driver-assistance technology, arguing that that Autopilot is not safe for widespread public use;

At least eight lawsuits are pending in the coming year — two of which have not been previously reported — involving fatal or otherwise serious accidents that occurred when drivers allegedly relied on Autopilot. had lived. The complaints argue that Tesla exaggerated the capabilities of the feature, which controls steering, speed and other actions normally left to the driver. As a result, the lawsuits claim, the company created a false sense of complacency that led to tragedy for drivers.

Evidence emerging in the cases — including dashcam video obtained by The Washington Post — offers sometimes shocking details: In Phoenix, a woman allegedly relying on Autopilot drove into a disabled car and then After getting out of his Tesla, he was hit by another vehicle and killed. . In Tennessee, a drunken man allegedly used autopilot for several minutes to crash into a car coming down the wrong side of the road, killing the 20-year-old inside.

Tesla says it is not responsible for the accident because the driver is ultimately in control of the vehicle. But the controversy is coming under increasing pressure, including from federal regulators. Late Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a new review of Autopilot, citing concerns that a December recall failed to significantly improve the technology's misuse and that drivers were Misled into thinking “automation has more potential than that.”

Meanwhile, in a surprising twist, Tesla this month settled a high-profile case in Northern California that claimed Autopilot played a role in the fatal crash of Apple engineer Walter Huang. The company's decision to settle with Huang's family—with a Ruler A Florida judge concluded that Tesla “knew” that its technology was “defective” under certain conditions — legal experts said, bringing new cases to cases once seen as long shots. Speeding up.

“There's a reckoning coming as more and more of these cases see the light of a jury trial,” said Brett Schreiber, an attorney with Singleton Schreiber, who is representing the family of Giovanni Maldonado, 15, who were killed in Northern California. When a Tesla on Autopilot rear-ended his family's pickup truck in 2019.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Dashcam footage from August 2019 shows another car behind the Tesla. A 15-year-old passenger in the other car was killed. (Video: Sourced from The Washington Post)

The outcome of the cases could be significant for the company. Tesla's stock has lost more than a third of its value since the start of the year. Last week, the company reported a larger-than-expected 55 percent drop in first-quarter profit as it struggled with declining sales of electric vehicles and stiff competition from China. To allay investor concerns, Musk made big promises about launching a fully autonomous “robo-taxi” in August. Soon, he said during Tuesday's earnings call, driving a car will be like riding an elevator: You walk in and get to your destination.

“We should think as an AI or robotics company,” Musk told investors. “If someone doesn't believe Tesla is going to solve autonomy, I don't think they should be an investor in the company. But we will.”

Meanwhile, the company has defended itself in court documents, arguing that its user manual and on-screen warnings make it “very clear” that drivers must be in full control when using Autopilot. Many of the upcoming court cases involve driver distraction or impairment.

Tesla said in response to a 2020 lawsuit filed in Florida that Autopilot “is not self-driving technology and does not replace the driver.” “The driver can still brake, accelerate and steer as if the system is not engaged.”

But the Huang case also likely involved a distracted driver: Huang was reportedly playing a video game when his Tesla plowed into a highway barrier in 2018. In court documents

More details of the fatal accident emerged

Meanwhile, federal regulators appear increasingly sympathetic to claims that Tesla oversells its technology and misleads drivers. Even the decision to call the software Autopilot “reflects a perception that drivers are not in control” and “invites drivers to over-rely on automation,” NHTSA said Thursday. Revealing that a two-year investigation of Autopilot technology identified 467 accidents, 13 of them fatal.

NHTSA did not provide specific information about these crashes. But two fatal accidents from 2022 are detailed in cases not previously reported.

Evanda Mitchell, 49, was driving the Tesla in Phoenix. in May 2022 when he hit a Toyota Camry that was stopped on the highway, according to court documents and dash cam footage obtained by The Post. According to the attorney for Mitchell's family, Jonathan Michaels with MLG Attorneys at Law, Autopilot and other car features — including forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking — failed, leading to Mitchell's Tesla's fraudulent actions. and prevented the vehicle from ramming into the parked sedan.

Mitchell was then struck and killed by an oncoming vehicle as she exited her car.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment about the case. In a January 2024 response to the complaint, Tesla said it denied the allegation and “has not yet had an opportunity to inspect” Mitchell's vehicle.

Iwanda Delci Mitchell's Tesla failed to see the sedan that had broken down in the middle of the highway in Phoenix. (Video: Sourced from The Washington Post)

About a month later in Sumner County, Tenn., Jose Roman Jaramillo-Cortez drank two beers and three tequila shots after a shift at a local restaurant, and then got into his Tesla Model 3, court documents say. He plugged his address into the Tesla's GPS and flicked on autopilot.

According to the lawsuit filed in June 2023 and dash cam footage obtained by The Post, the vehicle then drove onto the wrong side of the road. After driving southbound in the northbound lane for several minutes, the Tesla collided with a car driven by 20-year-old Christian Malone, killing him. In response to the complaint, Tesla said “the accident was caused by the carelessness and/or negligence of the driver.”

Michaels said trial dates for both cases will be set later next year.

In another case — set for trial in November in Key Largo, Fla. — a Tesla on Autopilot allegedly failed to detect an approaching T-intersection while its driver searched for a dropped phone. was The Tesla crashed into a parked car on the side of the road before going through flashing lights and physical barriers, killing a woman and seriously injuring a man.

In court documents, Tesla have argued that the driver was ultimately responsible for the speed of the car. Tesla also states in the user manual that Autopilot may not function “when it is unable to accurately determine lane markings” or when “bright light is interfering with the camera's view.”

When these cases go to trial, juries may be asked to consider whether Tesla's numerous driver warnings are sufficient to shield the company from liability. Ross Gerber, CEO of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth and Investment Management, said the last thing the company needs is a highly publicized court battle that focuses on questions like this.

At a trial, “the defense will dig through the weeds … and it will become very clear that the perception of the Autopilot software was very different from the reality,” Gerber said. “Every day there will be a headline, and it will be embarrassing.”

So far, Tesla has only faced a jury once over whether Autopilot may have played out in a fatal crash. In Riverside, Calif., last year, a jury heard the case of 37-year-old Micah Lee, who was allegedly using Autopilot when his Tesla Model 3 suddenly veered off the highway at 65 mph. Deflected, crashed into a palm tree and burst into flames. Lee succumbed to his injuries, while his fiancée and son were seriously injured.

Because of the extensive damage to the car, Tesla said it could not prove that Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash. During the trial, Tesla's attorney, Michael Carey, argued that the technology was not at fault, and that the accident was “classic human error.” According to a toxicology report taken after the crash, there was alcohol in Lee's system, but it was within the legal limit in California.

“This case is not about autopilot. Autopilot did not cause the crash,” Carey said during opening statements. “It's a bad accident with bad injuries and maybe it was the result of bad mistakes — but you can't blame the car company when that happens. It's a good car with a good design.”

Ultimately, Tesla's arguments prevailed, and a jury found the company not liable.

But the company seems to be facing headwinds in some other respects. Last year Florida Circuit Judge Reid Scott Upheld a plaintiff's request for punitive damages in a 2019 case related to a fatal crash in Delray Beach, Fla., when Jeremy Benner and his Tesla on Autopilot failed to register a semi truck crossing their path. . The car ran into the truck at full speed, killing Banner.

Video obtained exclusively by The Washington Post shows the moment a Tesla operating on Autopilot crashed into a parked truck on a rural Florida road in 2019. (Video: Sourced from The Washington Post)

In the ruling, Scott said the family's attorneys presented “sufficient” evidence to seek reasonable damages at trial, which could run into the millions of dollars.

According to the order, the plaintiffs' evidence included that Tesla “knew that the Autopilot system in the vehicle was defective.” Citing other fatal crashes involving Autopilot, Scott wrote that there is a “genuine” dispute over whether Tesla “created a foreseeable zone of danger that posed a general risk of harm to others.”

Tesla's appeal against the decision is pending.

A change in defensive strategy?

As the litigation continues, Tesla has shown a renewed willingness to settle such cases — despite Musk vowing on Twitter in 2022 that “an unfair case against us even if we lose “.

Michaels, an MLG attorney representing Lee's family, said that in addition to settling the Huang case, Tesla has “indicated” that it is open to discussing a possible settlement in the Riverside case since it last fall. I was being presented to a jury.

The month-long trial included testimony from a crash reconstructionist, a top Tesla engineer and a paramedic who responded to the crash and said it was the worst. Accidents he had ever seen. Michaels said he declined to get involved in settlement talks because he “wanted to make this a really public issue.” He said he also “doesn't have confidence in our ability to reach a reasonable amount.”

Tesla and Carey, its attorney in the case, did not respond to a request for comment.

After four days of deliberations, the jury decided the case in favor of Tesla.

Although he lost, Michaels said the case attracted media attention and gave other lawyers with cases against Tesla insight into the company's defense strategy. Plus, he said, his law firm's phone has been blowing up with potential clients ever since.

“We walked away with guaranteed money, but that wasn't what it was about,” Michaels said.

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