The world’s most valuable automaker is facing off in court with a family once called a “VIP customer” by Tesla employees. The week-long jury trial will begin Wednesday in U.S. federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the first time Tesla has gone to court over a fatal vehicle accident.
Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, said the case does not accuse Tesla of any flaws in its technology, unlike other lawsuits that attribute crashes to fatalities. Tesla’s driver-assistance features, so the outcome of the trial may not hurt Tesla’s corporate reputation.
However, he also said that the current situation also shows Tesla’s “aggressive legal strategy”, which is to choose to sue rather than settle out of court. “It shows where the U.S. is and how much power consumers actually have.”
Tesla did not respond to this request.
In May 2018, Barrett Riley, who died in an accident, was driving a Tesla Model S at 187 km/h on a road in Fort Lauderdale, eventually losing control of the vehicle. Taking control, it crashed into the concrete wall of a house and the vehicle burst into flames. He and a friend in the passenger seat were killed in the accident, while another friend in the back was ejected from the car and survived.
James Riley’s lawyer said that Barrett’s mother had asked Tesla to install a speed limiter on the Model S to ensure his safety, but Tesla removed the speed limiter two months later. This is dereliction of duty. Tesla said Barrett tricked Tesla employees into removing the speed limiter when the car was sent for maintenance. This speed limiter keeps the car under 85 mph.
Shortly after the accident, Musk contacted James Riley. Email exchanges between the two parties in court documents show Musk expressed sympathy for the Riley family and recalled the pain of losing his son.
Their exchanges prompted Tesla to release a software update in June 2018 that made a major update to the speed limit feature, allowing drivers to limit the top speed to 50 to 90 mph. The owner’s manual states that this feature was upgraded in honor of Barrett Riley.
Two years later, the Rileys filed a lawsuit against Tesla. In the original indictment, the Rileys argued that a defective Model S battery caused the explosion. The forensic report in the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation also showed that Barrett died in a vehicle fire following the crash, not a collision. Tesla, however, argued that the evidence did not prove that the technology was flawed, and a judge later dismissed the Rileys’ first allegation.
Brooks said battery fires are common in lawsuits against EV makers. “There have been many cases of battery fires, and hopefully this case won’t be affected by those, because I’d like to see proceedings eventually.”
Tesla’s defense strategy included proving that Barrett had a dangerous speeding record and that his parents had failed to restrain his driving behavior. Due to objections from the Rileys, Tesla agreed not to show the jury videos taken by Barrett’s friends that recorded Barrett’s speeding behavior. For example, a video titled “I’m going to die” recorded the speed of the car reaching 155 mph.
Tesla will show Barrett’s previous speeding tickets, including his 112 mph in a 50-mile zone, and an electronic record of the Model S’s maximum speed before the crash.
The pre-trial hearing is likely to present additional evidence, including testimony, transcripts, emails and videos involving Riley’s family, Barrett, his friends and Tesla employees.
The speeding ticket Barrett received in March 2018 prompted his mother, Jenny Riley, to ask Tesla to install a speed limiter. At the time, representatives from Tesla’s service center said in an email to colleagues that the Rileys were “VIP customers” who had ordered a sixth Tesla vehicle. The representative said the Rileys are “loyal Tesla supporters” for whom the installation of the speed limiter is a vital safety measure.
The day after the installation was complete, Barrett’s mother texted the customer service representative, “Fantastic. This will save lives.” She ended the text with four exclamation points.