A California state court jury has awarded Tesla Inc a landslide victory, ruling that the automaker’s Autopilot feature did not operate safely in what appeared to be the first trial related to a crash involving the partial self-driving software.
The verdict could be an important victory for Tesla as it tests and rolls out its Autopilot and more advanced “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) system, touted by Chief Executive Elon Musk. The system is critical to its company’s future, but has drawn regulatory and legal scrutiny.
Los Angeles resident Justine Hsu sued the electric carmaker in 2020, alleging her Tesla Model S swerved onto the side of the road while Autopilot, and then the airbag deployed “so violently that the plaintiff broke his jaw and lost his teeth, And there was nerve damage to her face.”
She alleges that the Autopilot and airbag designs were flawed and is seeking more than $3 million in damages for the alleged flaws and other claims.
Tesla has denied responsibility for the 2019 crash. Hsu used Autopilot on city streets despite Tesla’s owner’s manual warning against doing so, it said in a court filing.
During a court hearing Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court, a jury awarded Hsu zero damages. It also found that the airbags were not incapable of functioning safely and that Tesla hadn’t deliberately withheld that fact from her.
After the verdict was pronounced by the jury, Xu wept bitterly outside the courtroom.
Donald Slavik, one of Hsu’s attorneys, said they were disappointed with the outcome and thanked the jury for their service. Tesla attorney Michael Carey declined to comment.
Tesla calls its driver assistance system Autopilot, or FSD, but says the feature won’t make the car drive itself, and a human driver should be “ready to take over at any time.”
The electric carmaker introduced Autopilot in 2015 and reported the first fatal accident in the United States in 2016, but the case never went to trial.
Crunch time for Tesla
The Hsu trial has unfolded in Los Angeles Superior Court over the past three weeks, with testimony from three Tesla engineers.
It comes at a pivotal time for the company as it prepares to begin a series of other trials this year related to a semi-autonomous driving system that Musk claims is safer than human drivers.
While the trial outcome is not legally binding in other cases, it is seen as a test case because it will serve as a bellwether to help Tesla and other plaintiffs’ lawyers hone their strategy, experts said.
Cassandra Burke Robertson, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law who studies liability for self-driving cars, said the early cases “are a harbinger of how the later cases might play out.”
Tesla is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over its respective claims of self-driving capabilities and the safety of its technology.
The main question in the autonomous driving case is who is responsible for accidents when the car is in driver-assisted autonomous mode—the human driver, the machine, or both? Ms. Xu said in the lawsuit that the Tesla car suddenly hit the side of the road, and even though she had her hands on the steering wheel and was vigilant, it was too late to dodge.
Reuters previously reported that videos Tesla used to promote its Autopilot technology in 2016 were actually staged to show features the system didn’t have, such as stopping at red lights and accelerating at green lights. Testified by a senior engineer.
Details about the video come from testimony by Tesla executives in a separate case.
The executive, Ashok Elluswamy, director of Tesla’s self-driving software, testified on the tape during Hsu’s trial last week.