Tesla has been in the headlines quite a bit lately, and sometimes for the wrong reasons.
Most recently, it came to light Tesla is being sued in a wrongful death lawsuit. The Levin Firm notes that every year in the U.S., nearly 1.3 million people die in accidents on the road. Unintentional injuries are the number three leading cause of death in the U.S.
So what does this mean for Tesla, and what is there to know about auto accidents and wrongful death lawsuits in general?
Tesla’s Autopilot Feature and Fatal Crashes
One family of the owner of a Tesla Model X filed a lawsuit against the car company in a California state court at the start of 2019, and now there’s another similar suit pending.
Most recently, Jeremy Banner’s family is asking for damages of more than $15,000 as the result of a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Tesla. In Palm Beach County, Florida on March 1, a Model 3 that was on Autopilot crashed into a truck trailer crossing the highway.
The death of 50-year-old Banner sparked an investigation into the accident from the National Transportation Safety Board. In the previous case, filed after the death of Joshua Brown in California, the NHTSA opened a federal investigation into the Autopilot system from Tesla, and it was closed without any defect being found or any recalled issued.
With the most recent case, the NTSB described the accident in a now-released preliminary report. According to the report, the Tesla approached a private driveway, and the truck slowed while crossing southbound lanes, blocking the path of the Tesla. The Tesla then hit the left side of the semi-trailer. It took the roof of the Tesla off, and the vehicle was under the trailer before finally coming to a stop on a median.
The NTSB said based on preliminary findings, the Autopilot was turned on just a few seconds before the crash occurred.
The family’s attorney said the crash is the result of a defective Autopilot system.
However, on the other hand, Tesla has data showing from less than eight seconds before the crash occurred, to the time impact occurred, the driver’s hands weren’t detected on the steering wheel.
Earlier this year, Walter Huang’s family sought damages from Tesla because of perceived negligence. Huang was driving a Model X that had Autopilot engaged, and he hit a highway barrier in Mountain View California.
What Qualifies as Wrongful Death
Any case of a deadly car accident is tragic, and regardless of how the wrongful death cases turn out against Tesla, there are many of these situations that are filed in courts across the country every day.
So what is wrongful death?
A wrongful death is one that occurs when the death is the result of recklessness, negligence or violent behavior. The specific laws vary depending on the state where someone lives and where the death occurs.
Often wrongful death suits are filed in the case of car accidents because these accidents tend to stem from negligence or recklessness.
For example, distracted driving such as texting and driving, speeding, failure to stop, or driving while intoxicated are all situations that can lead to deadly vehicle accidents.
Not all wrongful death lawsuits are filed against people involved in the accident. In some cases, the lawsuits may be filed against trucking companies who have their drivers on the road for longer than they legally should, or for roads that aren’t well-maintained and can lead to an accident.
In 2015, there were 3,179 people killed in vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, and there were 431,000 injuries.
Defective Motor Vehicle Lawsuits
When someone is in an accident that leads to death, we often think about lawsuits involving another driver, but as is the situation with the Tesla cases, this isn’t always true.
There are what are generally referred to as motor vehicle defect cases.
These claims include passenger automobiles, as well as trucks, vans, motorcycles and other vehicles.
Unlike the case with personal injury lawsuits or wrongful death cases against the other driver, with defective motor vehicle lawsuits, you don’t have to show carelessness. You have to show liability.
While the Tesla cases are centered on the Autopilot function, defective motor vehicle lawsuits can stem from defects in pretty much any part of the vehicle. This can include the brake system, temperature control system, electrical system, steering and many other parts.
There have been recent increases in punitive damage awards because of vehicle liability cases as well. Punitive damages go beyond damages, and they can be tens of millions of dollars in some cases. Punitive damages are meant as a form of punishment to the manufacturer of the vehicle that will force them to fix the problems in their vehicles that led to the accident.
Are There Grounds for a Wrongful Death Case?
Every state is going to have different laws dictating whether or not the family of someone who died can bring forward a wrongful death case.
As an example, in Pennsylvania, if the accident was ruled the fault of your loved one by the officer who responds, you’re probably not going to be able to hold the other driver responsible. However, you may be able to get a partial settlement from an insurance company if your loved one was partially at fault.
Pennsylvania is a unique state in these situations because they have comparative fault laws. These laws dictate that your loved one’s fault in an accident is determined by a percentage. For example, maybe your loved one was found to be 40% at fault for the accident.
Then, that percentage is taken from the total damages award. If your loved one were more than 50% responsible, you probably wouldn’t receive compensation through a wrongful death settlement. Not all states have these laws, however.
Other factors that can play a role include the circumstances of the accident, how long it’s been since the accident and your relationship to the deceased person.