May 28, 2021
If you follow the news, you may have heard various stories related to Tesla ‘Autopilot’ mode car accidents. According to Tesla’s website, the vehicle maker’s Autopilot function enables “your car to steer, accelerate, and brake automatically within its lane.” However, the site also notes the current version of Autopilot requires “active driver supervision” and that the function does not “make the vehicle autonomous.”
Nevertheless, despite Tesla’s explicit information (a quasi-warning of sorts), reports of drivers discovering the limitations of Autopilot by way of an unfortunate accident are rampant.
Last month, a crash in nearby Fontana, California, proved fatal when a man’s Tesla Model 3 struck an overturned semi-tractor-trailer on a freeway. Subsequent to the accident, California highway authorities stated the driver may have been operating the vehicle on Autopilot at the time of the crash. According to the Associated Press, the driver, identified as Steven Michael Hendrickson, 35, had posted numerous social media videos of himself riding in the vehicle without his hands on the wheel or foot on the pedal.
Hendrickson was reportedly a member of the Southern California chapter of a Tesla club. Club members, including Hendrickson, would post numerous photos and video of their various types of Teslas on social media. One video on Hendrickson’s Instagram account showed him riding in the driver’s seat with no hands on the wheel or foot on the pedal, all while the Tesla navigated dangerous freeway traffic. The video included the comment: “Best carpool buddy possible even takes the boring traffic for me,” according to NBC News.
The fatal crash initiated an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Al Jazeera reported that it was the 29th case involving a Tesla that the agency had responded to.
Initially, reports surfaced that Hendrickson’s Model 3 was on Autopilot mode at the time of the crash. Eventually, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) announced earlier this month that the car indeed had been operating Tesla’s Autopilot function, noting that it was at least the fourth U.S. death involving the technology.
“While the CHP does not normally comment on ongoing investigations, the Department recognizes the high level of interest centered around crashes involving Tesla vehicles,” the agency said in a statement. “We felt this information provides an opportunity to remind the public that driving is a complex task that requires a driver’s full attention.”
But when a similar car accident allegedly involving Tesla’s Autopilot function occurred in Texas the previous month, authorities weren’t as certain of the findings following a similar probe.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted the investigation into a Texas accident occurring in April. Initially, the agency released a preliminary report stating that “although the Model S had Tesla’s
Autopilot driver-assist technology equipped, it could not have been in effect at the time of the crash because it couldn’t be enabled in that location.”
However, the NTSB released a revised statement a week later that was inconclusive.
In a statement to Car and Driver, an NTSB spokesperson clarified the original statement by declaring:
“The NTSB has made no conclusions about the operation of the crash vehicle – we are only stating the facts as we know them at this early stage of our investigation and all we know at this point, with regard to vehicle operation, is that Autosteer* was not available on the section of road where the crash happened when we tested the exemplar vehicle.“
*According to Tesla’s website, the Autosteer function “assists in steering within a clearly marked lane, and uses traffic-aware cruise control.”
The NTSB went on to state that, “Autopilot would not engage because Autosteer was not available. We have not made any conclusion about the operation of the crash vehicle during the crash sequence. That remains under investigation.”
In other words, the NTSB’s investigation has yet to determine whether or not Autopilot was enabled and ultimately contributed to the fiery crash that killed two after the 2019 Tesla Model S hit a tree near Houston on April 17.
With the confusion surrounding the many Tesla car accidents that may or may not be due to Autopilot, many are wondering what the legal ramifications would be if you either:
A. Happen to be involved in an accident after being struck by a Tesla on Autopilot
B. Are driving/riding in a Tesla being operated on Autopilot and are involved in an accident
To best answer that question, it’s important to understand the specific facts of how the accident occurred, who was driving, whether a driver was impaired (alcohol or drugs), and the conditions of the roadway. One example of a minor Autopilot accident that resulted in only a traffic citation occurred in earlier this month in Washington.
On May 18, ABC News reported that Washington state authorities were investigating a crash involving a Tesla vehicle suspected to be in Autopilot mode when it collided with a parked police car.
No injuries occurred in the crash, but the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department issued a Facebook post stating that the incident caused “significant damage” to the patrol car (photo below).
The crash occurred at 6:40 p.m. local time in Arlington, a suburb north of Seattle. A sheriff’s deputy was investigating a separate car accident where the vehicle collided with a utility pole. The deputy had parked his patrol car on the shoulder of the road. While parked, the Tesla, operating on Autopilot, approached the cruiser and crashed into the left side of the deputy’s vehicle, according to the ABC News report.
“The deputy had his overhead emergency lights activated at the time and was partially blocking the roadway to protect the collision scene,” Washington State Patrol officials said in a statement.
The state patrol also said that, “While Troopers investigated the collision, the driver of the Tesla claimed that he had the vehicle in ‘Auto-Pilot mode’ and assumed the vehicle would slow and move over on its own.”
The driver of the Tesla was only issued a ticket for the collision, but that has much to do with the fact that no injuries occurred.
The local sheriff’s department called the incident a “great reminder that vehicles may have Autopilot to assist, but it cannot be relied upon to get you safely from one destination to the next.“
Although the driver was only issued a ticket, if the accident had been more severe and any injuries/fatalities were caused, the penalties – both criminal and civil – could have been much more severe.
Approaching a Tesla Autopilot crash from a civil standpoint is essentially the same as approaching any other type of personal injury motor vehicle crash. You need to take specific steps, like attend to any injuries, collect contact information of any drivers/passengers/witnesses, gather evidence at the scene, and take statements from witnesses. We outlined the Top 10 Steps to take following a car accident via our recent blog.
However, if you’re injured in a crash with a Tesla, it’s important for you to encourage authorities (police, sheriff, as well as agencies such as the NTSB and NHTSA) to conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether or not Autopilot was engaged at the time of the accident.
While this may be a difficult task, as these law enforcement organizations and government agencies are extremely busy, if you bring your car accident claim to Dordulian Law Group (DLG), we’ll launch our own in-house investigation led by retired LAPD detective, Moses Castillo.
Castillo and his team will work tirelessly to uncover every piece of evidence that can help prove your case, including if the driver’s Tesla was operating on Autopilot. If it can be proven that the driver was not operating the vehicle in accordance with state laws, and instead relying on Tesla’s Autopilot feature to essentially take over the responsibility of driving, you may be entitled to a substantial financial damages award due to any injuries, physical damage to your vehicle, medical bills, pain and suffering, emotional trauma, lost wages, and much more.
If you were struck by a Tesla driver and the vehicle was operating on Autopilot, you may be eligible for additional financial damages beyond what are typically recovered in a personal injury claim. By operating the vehicle on Autopilot, knowing that Tesla explicitly states that driver’s must maintain control at all times, your top-rated car accident lawyers at DLG may be able to include punitive damages within your claim.
Punitive damages are rare in personal injury cases, but when another driver demonstrates wanton disregard for human life – i.e. by removing their hands from the wheel and feet from the pedals – such damages may be recoverable. In California, punitive damages are not capped, and the DLG Car Accident Division team pursues such damages in all eligible cases.
If you’ve been injured in a Tesla Autopilot accident, don’t settle for anything less than the DLG Advantage. We offer unique benefits for car accident clients that can’t be found at other firms.
For starters, our founder and president, Sam Dordulian, has successfully handled over 100 jury trials. That type of experience is extremely rare among most personal injury lawyers. With Dordulian’s courtroom experience, our clients never have to worry about being lowballed into a settlement offer by an insurance company.
Ready to file a claim and pursue justice through a financial damages award? Our expert attorneys are available online or by phone now.
With DLG, if the insurance company (or at-fault Tesla driver) offers anything less than a maximum financial damages award, Sam Dordulian and his Car Accident Division team of skilled attorneys proceed with taking the case to court where it will be proved before a jury.
We don’t waste time haggling with insurance companies trying to take advantage of our clients. Rather, we aggressively fight for what injured victims deserve – a maximum financial damages award.
Secondly, we have the aforementioned Moses Castillo, a retired LAPD detective and invaluable asset to our team who uncover critical evidence that can help prove your case. While it may not seem like a major issue, recovering key evidence in a car accident case – particularly one involving a Tesla on Autopilot – can be the difference between a thousand dollar settlement and a multi-million dollar settlement.
At DLG, we consistently turn initial $5,000 settlement offers from insurance companies into multi-million dollar settlements for our clients. Take a look at some of our recent results to see how we always reject paltry offers and fight to recover what our clients deserve – maximum compensation, often totaling in the millions of dollars.
With a 98% success rate and our track record of recovering more than $100,000,000 for injured clients like you, there’s no better car accident law firm available throughout California than DLG.
With our No Win/No Fee Guarantee, you never pay a penny until we successfully recover a maximum financial damages award for you. Contact us today online of by phone at 818-322-4056 to arrange a free consultation, file a claim, or speak with a dedicated member of our Car Accident Division team 24/7.
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