Tesla Inc. cannot escape prosecution over claims the automaker is responsible for the death of a Florida teenager who crashed a Model S into a wall at 116 miles per hour in 2018.
The ruling by a federal judge paves the way for a trial in July, the first time Tesla will face a jury in litigation over a car accident. The electric carmaker is facing a series of lawsuits over a series of accidents that have also drawn increasing scrutiny from safety regulators.
Barrett Riley, 18, was behind the wheel of his father’s Model S when it lost control and crashed into the concrete wall of a Fort Lauderdale home. The car was engulfed in flames. Riley and his friend in the passenger seat were killed.
The father, James Riley, alleged in a lawsuit that Tesla was negligent in removing a speed-limiting device from the car after his wife asked for it to be installed. The aftermarket device was designed to limit the car’s speed to 85 mph.
The family also argued that Barrett could have survived the impact of the crash but lost his life in the intense fire, which the lawsuit attributes to faulty battery design.
“We look forward to proceeding to trial in this important case against Tesla,” said Curtis Miner, an attorney representing the Rileys. Tesla attorney Wendy Lumish did not respond to requests for comment.
In its defense, the company said the speed limiter was removed on the instructions of Barrett Riley when he arrived at the Tesla shop where the car was being repaired.
Tesla also argued that fires are not uncommon when cars collide and that the Rileys have offered no evidence that a defect is to blame for their car catching fire.
Federal Judge Alicia Valle rejected Tesla’s request to dismiss the case without sending it to trial over claims that the company’s handling of the speed limiter was negligent and that the battery was faulty.
Valle found that the Rileys had shown that removal of the speed limiter without consent or notice could have had an impact on the events of the case. The judge also ruled that the Rileys can seek punitive damages in the negligence claim.
A jury will have to determine whether the vehicle’s battery was defective based on a finding by an expert hired by the Rileys that the design lacked certain fire-retardant materials, the judge said. The Rileys dropped their request to seek punitive damages for the alleged defect.
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The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 2019 after investigating the crash that Barrett Riley and his front seat passenger died as a result of the fire. A passenger in the rear, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car and survived with multiple fractures.
The accident is one of several reviewed by the NTSB in which fires broke out in the highly flammable lithium batteries used in Teslas and other vehicles. Batteries are difficult for firefighters to turn off and can reignite hours or days after a crash.
A lawsuit blaming Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance feature for a fatal 2019 crash that killed a Florida man was initially scheduled to go to trial earlier this year in Palm Beach County. But that trial was postponed until September.
The case is Riley v. Tesla Inc., 20-cv-60517, US District Court, Southern District of Florida (Fort Lauderdale).