LOS ANGELES, April 21 (Reuters) – A California state jury handed Tesla Inc ( TSLA.O ) a major victory on Friday, finding that the electric car maker’s autopilot function did not fail in what appeared to be the first trial related to a crash. involving the partially automated driving software.
Tesla has been testing and rolling out its Autopilot and more advanced “Full Self-Driving (FSD)” system, which CEO Elon Musk has touted as crucial to the company’s future, but which has drawn regulatory and legal scrutiny.
Los Angeles resident Justine Hsu sued in 2020, saying the Tesla Model S swerved into a curb while on autopilot and an airbag deployed “so violently that it broke the plaintiff’s jaw, knocked out teeth and caused nerve damage in her face.”
She alleged defects in the design of the autopilot and airbag, and demanded more than $3 million in damages.
Tesla denied responsibility for the accident and said in a lawsuit that Hsu was using Autopilot on city streets, despite an owner’s manual warning against doing so.
In Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday, the jury awarded Hsu zero damages. It also found that the airbag did not fail to operate safely and that Tesla did not willfully fail to disclose the facts.
After the verdict, jurors told Reuters that Tesla clearly warned that the partially automated driving software was not an autonomous system and that driver distraction was to blame. Tesla shares rose 1.3% to close at $165.08 on Friday.
Hsu broke down in tears outside the courtroom after the jury delivered its verdict. One of her attorneys, Donald Slavik, expressed disappointment with the outcome. Tesla attorney Michael Carey declined to comment.
Ed Walters, who teaches a course on autonomous vehicles at Georgetown Law, called the ruling a “huge victory” for Tesla.
“This case should be a wake-up call to Tesla owners: they can’t rely too much on autopilot and they really need to be ready to take control and Tesla is not a self-driving system,” he said.
CRITICAL TIME FOR TESLA
Tesla calls its driver assistance systems Autopilot or Full Self-Driving, but says the features do not make cars autonomous, and drivers should be “prepared to take over at any time.” The company introduced Autopilot in 2015, and the first US fatality was reported in 2016. That case never went to trial.
The Hsu trial unfolded in Los Angeles Superior Court over three weeks, with testimony from three Tesla engineers. The company has been preparing for a number of other trials related to the semi-automated driving system, which Musk has claimed is safer than human drivers.
The main question in autopilot cases was who is responsible for an accident while a car is in driver-assist autopilot mode – a human driver, the machine, or both?
“When fatal accidents are involved, and they’re on highways, the juries’ perspectives can be different,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
“While Tesla won this battle, they may end up losing the war,” he said, with people realizing that Tesla’s technology is “far from fully autonomous” despite Musk’s repeated promises over the years.
The trial’s outcome is not legally binding in other cases, but experts said they see it as a bellwether to help Tesla and other plaintiffs’ lawyers hone their strategies.
Cassandra Burke Robertson, a Case Western Reserve University School of Law professor who has studied self-driving car liability, said early cases “give an indication of how later cases are likely to go.”
The US Department of Justice is investigating Tesla’s claims about self-driving capabilities, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the safety of the technology.
Reporting by Abhirup Roy in Los Angeles and Hyunjoo Jin and Dan Levine in San Francisco Editing by Peter Henderson and Matthew Lewis
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