Judge Finds Reasonable Evidence That Tesla, Musk Knew Autopilot Was Defective

A Florida judge found “reasonable evidence” that Tesla, along with its CEO Elon Musk and other managers, knew that the so-called Autopilot advanced driver assistance system was defective but still allowed cars to be driven unsafely, according to Reuters.

The news comes after Judge Reid Scott, in the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County, ruled last week that the plaintiff in a lawsuit over a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model 3 could proceed to trial and bring punitive damages claims against the EV manufacturer for intentional misconduct and gross negligence.

The court action is related to a 2019 crash north of Miami in which a Tesla Model 3 drove under the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck that had turned onto the road, shearing off the car’s roof and killing Stephen Banner, the owner of the EV. As per Reuters, a trial set for October was delayed and has not been rescheduled.

As part of the ruling that allows the plaintiff to proceed to trial, the judge noted that Banner’s wife should be able to argue to jurors that Tesla’s warnings in its manual and “clickwrap” agreement were inadequate.

“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. 

Scott cited a 2016 promotional video released by Tesla (embedded below) that showed one of its EVs driving without human intervention. At the beginning of the video, there’s a disclaimer that says “The driver is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”

“Absent from this video is any indication that the video is aspirational or that this technology doesn’t currently exist in the market,” the judge wrote, adding that the video shows scenarios “not dissimilar” to what Banner encountered.

The same video referenced by the judge was part of another court case where Ashok Elluswamy, director of Tesla’s Autopilot Software, said the promotional clip was staged and that the system did not have the capabilities shown at the time.

This latest decision is a blow to the Austin-based carmaker. It previously won two product liability trials in California over the so-called Autopilot system.