Elon Musk told the father of a teenager who died in a Tesla Model S crash that the carmaker made a mistake in removing a speed limiter from the vehicle without the father's permission, a lawyer for the family said in court.
Curtis Miner, the attorney, told a jury Thursday that the billionaire chief executive officer of Tesla Inc. made a “critical confession” when James Riley asked him in a May 2018 phone conversation how a device that was supposed to prevent the vehicle from going faster than 85 miles per hour (roughly 137km per hour) was removed before 18-year-old Barrett Riley veered off a Florida road at 116 miles per hour (roughly 186km per hour) and hit a wall.
After confirming that James Riley, through his company, was the registered owner of the car, Musk said Tesla technicians shouldn't have removed the speed limiter without his authorisation, according to the lawyer's account of the phone call.
“Well, I guess we shouldn't have taken the limiter off,” Riley recalled Musk saying when he took the witness stand to testify against Tesla. Riley said the CEO told him that Tesla would review its policies.
In his opening argument at a trial that's scheduled to run through next week in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Miner said the company's failure to communicate with Barrett's parents made all the difference.
“If Tesla had taken the most simplest steps to tell Jim and Jenny Riley what they'd done,” this accident wouldn't have happened, he said.
The negligence case is the first for the world's most valuable automaker over a fatal crash involving one of its vehicles. The electric car-maker faces a flurry of lawsuits over accidents blamed on its Autopilot driver-assistance feature that have also drawn increasing scrutiny from safety regulators.
Tesla's attorney presented a very different narrative to the six-person jury.
“A speed limiter is not a safety device,” Vince Galvin said. “Is it all right if they crash at 85 mph instead of 116 mph?”
Tesla has said that Barrett Riley went in person to the Tesla facility where the Model S was being serviced and “tricked” its staff into removing the speed limiter.
“Tesla is not in a position to police the Rileys' children,” Galvin said.
Galvin disputed what happened on the phone call between Musk and Riley. Musk isn't a witness in the case.
“If Musk told him they something did something wrong,” Riley would have told the National Transportation Safety Board that during the agency's investigation of the accident, but he “disclosed nothing,” the lawyer said.
Galvin said Barrett was known among friends and family for driving “recklessly” and “dangerously.” His mother urged his friends to stop him from speeding, saying she was worried for their safety, the lawyer said.
“The Rileys negligently entrusted their vehicle to Barrett because they knew and should have known he had driving issues,” Galvin said.
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