The family of the Apple engineer who died in a crash on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View last year while driving his Tesla has sued the automaker, alleging wrongful death and negligence stemming from false advertising of what they claim is a defective Autopilot driver-assistance system.
The lawsuit claims that the Autopilot feature misread lane lines and failed to detect a concrete median and stop the car before it slammed into the median, leaving behind a fiery wreckage and killing the driver.
“Mrs. Huang lost her husband, and two children lost their father because Tesla is beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers,” said B. Mark Fong, a partner at Minami Tamaki LLP, one of the law firms representing Huang's family. “The Huang family wants to help prevent this tragedy from happening to other drivers using Tesla vehicles or any semi-autonomous vehicles.”
Tesla has not commented on the lawsuit.
Lawyers for the family of 38-year-old Walter Huang told reporters at a press conference Wednesday that Huang was on his way to drop off his children at school on March 23, 2018 when he died from injuries he suffered when the Autopilot of his 2017 Tesla Model X drove his SUV into the unprotected edge of a concrete highway median that was missing its crash guard.
“We want to ensure the technology behind semi-autonomous cars is safe before it is released on the roads, and its risks are not withheld or misrepresented to the public," the family's attorneys said.
The allegations against Tesla include product liability, defective product design, failure to warn, breach of warranty, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, and false advertising.
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"He thought it was the safest car in the world," Huang's wife, Sevonne Huang, told reporters at the press conference that she gave him the Model X as a birthday gift. "He was a good man, we miss him a lot."
Huang leaves behind his wife, a 4-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, and two elderly parents who depended on Huang for financial support.
The family is also suing the state of California for not maintaining the highway, claiming that "appropriate safety repairs were not undertaken and completed within the required amount of time" so as to avoid the dangerous condition which existed at the time of the crash.
The lawsuit claims Huang’s Tesla impacted a concrete highway median that was missing its crash attenuator guard, as Caltrans failed to replace the guard after an earlier crash there, and accuses the state of California of creating "a death trap for motorists" traveling south on U.S. Highway 101.
The official complaint for damages include negligence, wrongful death, strict and dangerous condition of public property.
The lawsuit accuses Tesla of "false advertising," stating that based on the automaker's advertising and promotions, Huang believed the Model X technology "was safer than a human-operated technology."
According to the California Highway Patrol, the Tesla Model X was driving southbound on US-101 and state Highway 85 junction at freeway speeds when the driver lost control and ran into a median barrier causing the car to catch fire. The Tesla was then hit by a white Mazda as it landed on a lane and then hit by a gray Audi in the next lane. A total of three vehicles were involved.
An eyewitness who was riding his motorcycle down Highway 101, recalled that the Tesla wasn’t just smoking after the crash, but "actively emitting full flames from the battery bank."
Huang was taken to Stanford University Medical Center where he succumbed to his injuries. Tesla sent an employee over to investigate the crash and the subsequent fire. An exposed battery was visible inside the car right after the crash.
A Tesla Model X is a mid-sized, all-electric, luxury crossover SUV made by Tesla with falcon wing doors. It starts at $79,500.
Tesla blamed Caltrans for not replacing the barrier, stating on the company's website that the crash was "so severe" because a new attenuator had not been installed in place of the damaged one.
"We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash," the car manufacturer said in a blog post last year.
Tesla acknowledged that Autopilot was engaged, and that the system's adaptive cruise control follow-distance was set to minimum.
"The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision," Tesla said in the post.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement saying investigators were "unhappy" when Tesla released those details and a few others about the crash without notifying them beforehand.
Tesla shares fell after the NTSB announced it was sending investigators to look into the fatal car crash.