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Tesla settles lawsuit over Autopilot crash that killed Apple engineer

A Tesla Model X burns after crashing on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, California, U.S. on March 23, 2018. 

S. Engleman | Via Reuters

Tesla has settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Walter Huang, an Apple engineer and father of two who died after his Model X SUV, with Autopilot features switched on, crashed into a highway barrier near Mountain View, California, in 2018.

The settlement comes as jury selection and a trial were just beginning on Monday in a California Superior court. The settlement allows Tesla to avoid airing evidence and testimonies in a widely-followed case.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the fatal crash and revealed, in 2020, that it found Tesla’s tech was at least partly to blame for the collision, along with possible driver distraction and problematic road construction. NTSB believed that Huang had been looking at a game on his phone at some point before the collision.

The federal agency found that Tesla’s forward collision warning system did not provide an alert, and its automatic emergency braking system did not activate as Huang’s Model X, with Autopilot engaged, accelerated into a barrier alongside the highway 101. Faded lane markings and the barrier — or crash attenuator — positioning also may have contributed to the collision, the NTSB said in 2020.

Huang’s bereaved family sued Tesla for wrongful death and their claims focused in part on alleged safety and design defects in the company’s driver assistance systems. The case was Sz Huang et al v. Tesla Inc. et al in a California Superior Court in Santa Clara County.

Huang attorneys, in court filings, also pointed to social media and marketing messages from Tesla, its CEO Elon Musk and others, suggesting that Autopilot made Tesla vehicles safe to drive without needing to stay attentive to the road at all times or without needing to keep hands on the vehicle’s steering wheel.

In internal Tesla e-mails referenced in court filings, Tesla execs and engineers discussed how they had become complacent while driving their Tesla vehicles with Autopilot or related premium features switched on. They described reading emails and checking their phones while driving with these systems engaged.

A Tesla Model X which crashed on U.S. Highway 101 (US-101) is seen in Mountain View, California, U.S. on March 23, 2018 in this handout image. 

S. Engleman | Via Reuters

A civil jury trial was slated to begin this week in a San Jose, California courthouse just before Tesla settled.

Tesla attorneys had argued that Huang was an inattentive driver, who ostensibly knew better but was playing mobile games on his phone at the time of the crash.

The company has filed to seal from public view the amount listed in the settlement agreement.

The fatal crash and filings in this suit had already thrown Tesla’s culture, its attitudes about safety and the quality of its driver assistance systems into question for many prospective shareholders and customers.

If a jury had found Tesla liable (in part or whole) for Huang’s death, this trial would have also set a precedent in product liability suits that the EV maker is now facing pervasively, making it easier for other plaintiffs to sue or win over related issues.

In May 2022, Musk declared in a post on social media: “We will never seek victory in a just case against us, even if we will probably win,” adding that, “We will never surrender/settle an unjust case against us, even if we will probably lose.”

Tesla lead attorneys with Bowman and Brooke LLP were not immediately available to comment on Monday.

In a filing asking the court to seal the settlement terms, Tesla’s attorneys wrote that the company had, “entered into a settlement agreement with Plaintiffs to end years of litigation.” They said they wanted the exact dollar amount of the settlement sealed because, “other potential claimants (or the plaintiffs’ bar) may perceive the settlement amount as evidence of Tesla’s potential liability for losses, which may have a chilling effect on settlement opportunity in subsequent cases.”

Attorneys for the Huang family, at the law firms Minami Tamaki and Walkup Melodia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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