The judge in a lawsuit over a fatal crash involving Tesla's Autopilot driving assist has ruled that there is "reasonable evidence" that Tesla's leadership knowingly allowed lethal misuse of its driving technology. Now, Reuters reports the suit has been cleared to head to trial, where the victim's surviving family will present their case to a jury.
The suit stems from a crash that occurred in 2019 outside Miami, Florida. Stephen Banner was driving his Tesla Model 3 with Autopilot active when a semi truck pulled out across the road. Banner's Tesla, set to travel at 69 mph, detected neither Banner's hands on its steering wheel nor the presence of the stationary trailer in its path, according to The Washington Post. The car traveled under the trailer, ripping off its roof and killing Banner.
Banner's wife filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County, which Judge Reid Scott ruled last week could proceed to trial. Judge Scott reportedly cited a video published by Tesla in 2016 wherein the company claimed "the car is driving itself," but didn't give "any indication that the video is aspirational or that this technology doesn't currently exist in the market." Tesla employees later revealed the demonstration was staged.
Judge Scott ruled that there was evidence that Tesla "engaged in a marketing strategy that painted the products as autonomous" when it has admitted in legal filings that even its "Full Self-Driving" software is, in fact, not. Tesla CEO Elon Musk removed his hands from the steering wheel with Autopilot active in a televised 60 Minutes segment in 2018, directly violating instructions to customers not to do so. Judge Scott said that marketing of this sort "had a significant effect on the belief about the capabilities of the products."
"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," Reuters reports Judge Scott wrote. The judge reportedly also likened the crash to the similar 2016 incident that killed Joshua Brown, where a Tesla also shot under a semi trailer after failing to detect it.
The ruling clears the case to proceed to trial, where the victim's wife will be allowed to present her case to a jury that Tesla's warnings were inadequate in light of Tesla's misleading marketing.
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