A California jury ruled on Tuesday that a crash that killed a Tesla owner and seriously injured two passengers was not the fault of the carmaker’s driver-assistance software.
It is the first verdict involving a fatal crash in which lawyers representing the victims blamed Tesla’s Autopilot system. The technology allows a car to drive with a degree of autonomy but has been criticized as unreliable.
The decision by a jury in a state court in Riverside, Calif., could be an indicator of how jurors and judges would rule in several other similar cases that are pending around the country. It could also affect consumer perceptions about the quality of Tesla’s vehicles, which account for half of electric car sales in the United States.
Elon Musk, the Tesla chief executive, has convinced many Wall Street analysts and investors that self-driving software will be a lucrative source of profit for the company. Tesla charges as much as $199 per month for its most advanced driver-assistance system, Full Self-Driving.
Mr. Musk has often been accused of exaggerating the software’s abilities and making overly optimistic predictions about when it will be able to drive a car from one location to another without human intervention. Despite the names Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, the company’s software requires drivers to remain engaged and be prepared to assume full control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice.
The California lawsuit was filed by Lindsay Molander and her son, Parker Austin. In June 2019, they were passengers in a Tesla Model 3 car driven by Micah Lee, who died after the car suddenly veered off a highway, smashed into a palm tree and burst into flames. Ms. Molander and her son were severely injured.
They blamed a malfunction by the car’s driver-assistance software for the crash. During closing arguments in the trial, Jonathan Michaels, who is representing Ms. Molander and her son, cited Tesla internal documents, which he said showed the company was aware of a defect in the software that could cause the car to veer suddenly.
Lawyers for Tesla argued that human error was to blame. The software was not capable of causing the car to veer as suddenly as it had in the accident, Michael Carey, a lawyer representing Tesla, told jurors during closing arguments in the trial.
Mr. Carey blamed Mr. Lee, who had consumed several drinks at a restaurant and shopping district near Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., with Ms. Molander. Mr. Lee had alcohol in his blood, according to tests conducted several hours after the accident, but not enough to be considered intoxicated under California law.
“When someone gets in a crash after they have had a few drinks, we don’t accept their excuses,” Mr. Carey told jurors.
“This product is doing a really good job,” Mr. Carey added. “Autopilot is helping people and making the world safer for all of us.”