There’s been considerable controversy over whether “self-driving” vehicles are safe enough to be on the roads, even when there’s a driver at a wheel. There have been some tragic collisions involving drivers relying on the car’s technology, which failed in some way.
Recently, a judge in a case involving a lawsuit over one of these crashes has ruled that the plaintiff can seek punitive damages from Tesla. The suit alleges that Tesla executives, including its controversial Chief Executive Elon Musk, and engineers are guilty of gross negligence and intentional misconduct because they know their Autopilot system was defective.
Tesla was “acutely aware of the problem”
The judge determined that there was “reasonable evidence” to support that claim. He also said evidence indicated that Tesla “engaged in a marketing strategy that painted the products as autonomous” and that Musk’s statements about the technology “had a significant effect on the belief about the capabilities of the products.” He wrote, “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.”
In the 2019 fatal incident that prompted the lawsuit, a man driving a Tesla Model 3 with the Autopilot feature on crashed into an 18-wheeler truck that it failed to detect. At least one other fatal crash involved the system not detecting large trucks crossing in the car’s path.
When can punitive damages be sought?
Here in New York, being able to seek punitive (exemplary) damages can greatly increase the amount of compensation someone can be awarded in cases involving vehicle crashes and other incidents. Courts have determined that they are warranted when there’s “willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”
People are increasingly reliant on their vehicles being able to act on their own to prevent collisions through a range of new technologies. So-called “self-driving” cars and even commercial trucks are on our roads. This can make seeking compensation for a crash more challenging and complex since a third party not at the scene may bear some responsibility. Having legal guidance can help victims and surviving loved ones hold the appropriate parties responsible.