Tesla dismisses claim over death of employee killed in fire

Tesla dismisses claim over death of employee killed in fire

The lawsuit comes after a Washington Post investigation highlighted evidence that Tesla’s ‘Full Self-Driving’ feature potentially played a role in the crash.

SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla filed a response Thursday disputing a wrongful-death lawsuit from the wife of a Tesla employee killed in a fiery 2022 crash. The initial suit seeking damages from Tesla was filed last month in the U.S. District Court in Colorado and alleges that the company sold the employee a defective car and exaggerated the capabilities of its assisted driving features.

Tesla’s response submitted Thursday states that the company “disputes that it is liable for any damages whatsoever,” and requests that the case be moved from state to federal court.

A Washington Post investigation in February highlighted evidence that Hans von Ohain, a Tesla recruiter, was using his Tesla Model 3′s so-called Full Self-Driving feature when it barreled into a tree in Evergreen, Co., and exploded in flames. That potentially makes him the first documented fatality linked to the most advanced driver assistance technology offered by the company. After Tesla initially declined to comment on The Post’s reporting, CEO Elon Musk later wrote in a post on X that von Ohain did not have the Full Self-Driving feature downloaded onto his car, without providing evidence for that claim.

Tesla and Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The suit filed by Nora Bass, von Ohain’s wife, in May is the latest legal challenge to Tesla alleging that a fatal or serious crash occurred while a driver was relying on technology Musk has made central to the automaker’s brand. Full Self-Driving and another assisted driving feature, Autopilot, control steering and other actions typically left to the human behind the wheel.

Musk has said he will unveil a fully autonomous taxi called the “Cybercab” in August but has provided few details. Meanwhile, Tesla is fighting at least eight other lawsuits — in addition to the Colorado case — that allege flaws in its assistive driving technology and are headed to trial in the next year. The Colorado crash is also one of hundreds involving Tesla vehicles investigated by federal or state officials for the role the company’s assistive driving technology may have played in a collision.

On Thursday, Tesla filed a motion to move the case from the District Court of the State of Colorado to federal court. The company argued that the case qualified for federal court because the two sides are from different states and Bass is seeking damages above $75,000. Attorneys for Bass declined to disclose the total amount they were seeking.

“We stay committed to advocating fiercely for the von Ohain family, ensuring they receive the justice they deserve,” said Jonathan Michaels, Bass’s attorney, in a statement. The suit refers to the crashed vehicle’s driver assist features only as Autopilot, but Michaels says it was intended as a “catchall” to refer to all the car’s automation technology, including Full Self-Driving.

In previous cases filed against Tesla, the company has said it is not liable for the crashes or deaths because the driver is ultimately in control of the vehicle. But that contention is coming under increased scrutiny from the spate of lawsuits and federal regulators. In April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the name Autopilot “may lead drivers to believe that the automation has greater capabilities than it does.” The agency’s comments came as it opened another probe into the technology after concerns that a sweeping December recall did not go far enough to address driver inattention.

Critics say that Tesla’s marketing and lofty promises made by Musk naming the assisted driving features Full Self-Driving and Autopilot give drivers a false sense of confidence about taking their eyes off the road, or getting behind the wheel after drinking. In the suit filed by Bass, her lawyers argue that if the technology “operated properly, the vehicle would not have veered off the road, collided with a tree, burst into flames, and Hans Von Ohain’s gruesome and painful death would have been avoided.”

Michaels, the attorney, said the car was also defective because of the intensity of the fire that ensued after von Ohain hit the tree, which ultimately caused his death. Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Robert Madden, who oversaw the agency’s investigation into the crash, told The Post in an interview that it was one of “the most intense” vehicle fires he had ever seen, and that von Ohain likely would have survived the impact of the crash alone.

The suit does not mention that von Ohain was drinking in the hours leading up to the crash, and died with a blood alcohol level of more than three times the legal limit in Colorado, according to an autopsy conducted by the Clear Creek County Coroner’s office. The surviving passenger, Erik Rossiter, who registered a similar blood alcohol level after the crash, said von Ohain seemed composed and “by no means intoxicated” as they got in the Tesla and headed home from a day at the golf course. Michaels said he plans to challenge the validity of von Ohain’s toxicology reading in court.

Because of the intensity of the fire, state investigators were unable to access data from the car. Tesla told Colorado state police that it could not confirm whether a driver-assistance system had been in use because it “did not receive data over-the-air for this incident,” according to the state investigative report.

Bass said in interviews that von Ohain received the Full Self-Driving feature with his employee discount and used it nearly every time he got behind the wheel. She said its driving could be “jerky” and unreliable, but that her husband considered Musk a “brilliant man” and was passionate about training futuristic technology so that could one day revolutionize the way society gets around. “We knew the technology had to learn, and we were willing to be part of that,” she said.

Tesla owners have long complained of occasionally erratic behavior by the cars’ software, including sudden braking and missed road markings. Rossiter, the passenger, told investigators and The Post that the car struggled to navigate the mountain curves on their way to the golf course the morning of the crash, forcing von Ohain repeatedly to yank it back on course.

Before representing Bass, Michaels brought one of the first major Autopilot cases in front of a jury last year in Riverside, Calif., but Tesla ultimately prevailed.

In recent months, Tesla has shown a fresh willingness to settle some legal cases alleging failings in its assisted driving technology, despite Musk’s vow on Twitter in 2022 to never settle “an unjust case against us even if we will probably lose.” Just this year, the company has settled at least two wrongful death lawsuits.

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