MIAMI (AP) — A Florida jury has found Tesla only 1 percent negligent in a fiery crash that killed two teenagers for disabling the car’s speed limiter.
Tuesday’s ruling placed 90 percent of the blame on the driver, 18-year-old Barrett Riley, and 9 percent on his father, James Riley, who filed the lawsuit against Tesla.
This is the first known case involving a Tesla crash to go to trial, said Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
Barrett Riley and his friend, Edgar Montserrat Martinez, were about to graduate from their private high school in South Florida when they died in the May 2018 crash near Fort Lauderdale Beach. A passenger in the back seat was ejected and survived.
The car missed a turn and hit the concrete wall on the right and then the left side of the road. Then it caught fire.
Witnesses told investigators that the driver of the Tesla pulled into the left lane to pass another vehicle and lost control while trying to get back into the right lane. At the crash site on Seabreeze Boulevard, the road turns left and has a warning sign with a flashing headlight.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that Barrett Riley was driving 116 mph in a 30 mph zone and the most likely cause of the crash “was loss of driver control resulting from excessive speed.”
James Riley argued that the crash was “completely survivable” and that the ensuing fire killed the teenagers, but the judge rejected his lawsuit’s claim that Tesla designed defective lithium-ion batteries that “burst into an uncontrollable and fatal fire” on impact.
James Riley also said Tesla removed the speed limiter without his permission. After Barrett was ticketed in March 2018 for driving 112 mph on a 50 mph road, his father ordered a device installed to prevent his son from driving more than 85 mph in an hour.
An investigation found that about a month before the crash, the teenager had asked workers at the Tesla dealership in Dania Beach to return the car to normal operating mode while it was in service.
Tesla has denied negligence in disabling the speed limiter. The company argued the teenager’s parents were negligent in allowing him to drive the vehicle “when they were aware of his history of speeding and reckless driving,” according to the judge’s instructions to the jury.
Jurors recommended awarding the teenager’s mother, Jenny Riley, $6 million for pain and suffering and $4.5 million to the father, the newspaper reported.
But the apportionment of liability means Tesla will only be liable for $105,000, which equates to 1 percent of the negligence determined by the verdict, according to Kurt Miner, an attorney representing the Rileys.
Edgar Montserrat’s parents have also filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, saying Tesla “negligently” allowed Barrett Riley to disable a speed limiter and “failed to warn of defects in the Model S.”
In February of this year, Bloomberg reported that the document in the Monserratt case cited a series of emails between Tesla founder Elon Musk and James Riley in the weeks after the crash.
In the emails, Musk expresses his condolences and offers to provide the family with details of the crash, as well as to speak with the family personally by phone. Musk referenced the death of his own son Nevada, who died at 10 weeks old, and said, “There’s nothing worse than losing a child.”
The emails were included in a request to order Musk to be questioned about Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance feature.