Tesla settles case over fatal 2018 crash of an Apple engineer

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SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla has settled a long-running lawsuit over the 2018 death of a former Apple engineer whose vehicle veered off a highway in Northern California, court documents say, avoiding a lengthy jury trial over what role its driver-assistance technology may have played in the crash.

Details of the settlement, which were released in a court filing Monday, the day before the trial was set to begin, were not disclosed. The case was one of several set for trial this year in which Tesla’s Autopilot technology is alleged to have contributed to a fatal crash. It appears to be one of Tesla’s first settlements for such a case, a notable moment for a company whose CEO, Elon Musk, had vowed in a 2022 social media post that his company would not settle an “unjust case against us, even if we will probably lose.”

The case involved a fatal crash in March 2018, when a Tesla in Autopilot careened into a highway barrier near Mountain View, Calif., after getting confused by what the company’s lawyers described in court documents as a “faded and nearly obliterated” lane line. Walter Huang, a father of two and an Apple engineer on his morning commute, was allegedly playing a game on his phone while his Tesla steered itself down U.S. Route 101. Documents filed in the case show that Huang’s vehicle on Autopilot drifted from the “faded” lane line, then began following a clearer one to the left, which put him in the path of a highway safety barrier separating the 101 from an exit to State Route 85 while going 71 mph.

Huang, 38, was killed. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board later cited Tesla’s failure to limit the use of Autopilot in such conditions as a contributing factor. The company has acknowledged to the NTSB that Autopilot is designed for areas with “clear lane markings.”

The settlement is a surprising twist in the high-profile case, which Tesla has been fighting since Huang’s family sued in April 2019. In its defense for this case — as well as for other lawsuits headed to trial this year — Tesla argues that it was not liable, because it warns drivers that they are ultimately in control of the vehicle while in Autopilot.

Tesla argues that it makes “extremely clear” that the driver must be fully alert and have their hands on the wheel while using Autopilot, and the company also states in its user manual that the technology may not operate as intended “when unable to accurately determine lane markings” or when “bright light is interfering with the camera’s view.” According to court documents, Huang’s hands were not detected on the wheel within seconds of the crash.

At issue in this case was whether those warnings were enough to spare the company from all liability when it knows about a shortcoming, but still puts the responsibility on the driver to correct for its mistakes. Tesla knew for years that faded lane lines could be a problem, according to complaints filed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, deposition from top engineers at the company and federal investigators.

Ed Walters, who teaches autonomous vehicle law at Georgetown Law, said he is surprised that Tesla decided to settle, because the facts of Huang’s crash seemed “favorable” for Tesla. Because the Huang case echoes multiple other lawsuits scheduled for trial, many observers were watching this case closely for its potential to set a precedent for the future proceedings.

The outcomes of these trials are critical for the company’s future and for Musk, who has said that Tesla is “worth basically zero” if it cannot make its cars self-driving. Tesla has so far prevailed: A jury found the company not liable in a case last year over the alleged role of its Autopilot technology in a 2019 crash in Riverside County, Calif.

Walters said settlements are a good way for the company to “manage risk,” as jury trials can yield “highly unpredictable results.” The trial was expected to last several weeks, according to the family’s lawyers.

“This might be a sign that Tesla is taking a stronger settlement posture for early cases, waiting to litigate until its software is more advanced,” he said. But he added that he is “surprised this case settled. I thought Tesla would want to litigate on these facts.”

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