Tesla and Elon Musk may have been aware of glitches in their self-driving technology, yet chose to press on with their sales and marketing activities, and now they are facing a lawsuit – linked to a fatal accident in Miami in 2019 – that alleges that the company misled consumers about the safety and reliability of the autopilot system, and failed to warn about the risks associated with it.
According to Judge Reid Scott, of the Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Tesla created a perception that its vehicles are fully automated, and Musk's enthusiastic public statements about the technology were specifically noted for swaying consumers regarding its capabilities. Read more.
The Fatal Accident And The Lawsuit
In 2019, Stephen Banner lost his life when the Tesla Model 3 he was driving collided with an 18-wheeler truck. After that, his wife initiated a pending lawsuit accusing Tesla of wilful misconduct and gross negligence, potentially opening up the company to punitive damages. Interestingly, this lawsuit follows Tesla's victories in two product liability lawsuits in California earlier the same year. These cases also revolved around alleged defects in the Autopilot system.
During the judgment, Judge Scott also clarified that Banner's wife has the right to argue in front of a jury that Tesla's warnings in its user manuals and "clickwrap" agreements were insufficient.
The judge drew parallels with another accident that happened in 2016 involving Joshua Brown: his car's Autopilot system failed to detect a crossing truck.
Lake “Trey” Lytal III, the attorney for Banner, hailed the judgment, backed by evidence of punitive conduct. A promotional video from 2016, in which a Tesla vehicle is shown driving itself, was highlighted by the judge.
The disclaimer for the video explains that the person in the driver's seat is merely there for legal reasons. However, the judge pointed out the video's failure to clarify that the technology wasn't available to consumers then.
He stated that the video merely represents future aspirations.
Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, mentioned to Reuters that the judge's summary of the evidence was crucial.
Also according to the law professor, Bryant Walker Smith, the evidence suggested a disturbing discrepancy between Tesla's internal understanding of its technology and its public marketing. Smith stated that this opinion could lead to a public trial that might result in a punitive verdict.
For now, the situation presents a significant challenge for both Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, as they navigate the path between innovation, marketing, and consumer safety.