Judge: Evidence Shows Musk Knew About Self-Driving Issues

Lawsuit over deadly 2019 crash will proceed to trial with claim for punitive damages
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 22, 2023 12:45 PM CST
Judge: Evidence Shows Musk Knew About Self-Driving Issues
Despite evidence Autopilot was defective, Tesla continued a marketing campaign "for the purpose of selling vehicles under the label of being autonomous,” the judge said.   (AP Photo/Steven Senne, file)

In what could be a major setback for Tesla, a Florida judge has ruled that a lawsuit over a deadly 2019 crash north of Miami can go to trial with a claim for punitive damages. Judge Reid Scott in the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County said there was "reasonable evidence" showing that Tesla execs including CEO Elon Musk knew that the Autopilot feature was defective, Reuters reports. Jeremy Banner was killed when his Tesla Model 3 collided with a tractor-trailer that was crossing his path on a highway, the Verge reports. The 18-wheeler sheared off the roof of Banner's vehicle. The judge said the accident was "eerily similar" to a 2016 crash that killed another Tesla driver using Autopilot in Florida.

"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. The lawsuit filed by Banner's widow accuses Tesla of intentional misconduct and gross negligence, the Guardian reports. When the case goes to trial, tech experts are expected to testify that Tesla's marketing "lulled drivers into a false sense of security," reports Bloomberg. The judge said evidence shows Tesla "engaged in a marketing strategy that painted the products as autonomous" and Musk's public statements "had a significant effect on the belief about the capabilities of the product."

A jury cleared Tesla of wrongdoing in an Autopilot lawsuit last month, but more lawsuits over fatal crashes will go to trial in the coming months. The ruling to allow a punitive damages claim in the Florida cases could lead to damages of millions, or even billions, against Tesla. University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith tells Reuters that the judge's ruling suggests there were "alarming inconsistencies" between what Tesla knew and what it told the public. "This opinion opens the door for a public trial in which the judge seems inclined to admit a lot of testimony and other evidence that could be pretty awkward for Tesla and its CEO," Walker says. (More Tesla stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.