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Felony Vehicular Manslaughter Charges After Tesla Autopilot Car Crash

People make mistakes. And sometimes machines do, too.

Prosecutors in California have filed criminal charges of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of a Tesla Model S. In this first-of-its-kind criminal case, the driver was using the autopilot feature of the car when it ran a red light and collided with another vehicle. Both people in the other vehicle died in the crash. 

While the criminal complaint does not mention the autopilot feature specifically, it’s known that it was in use at the time of the crash. Whether prosecutors will claim criminal negligence as a result of autopilot use remains to be seen. The driver’s first hearing in criminal court is scheduled for Feb. 23.

In the U.S., 765,000 Tesla cars are equipped with driver-assist features. This 2019 crash wasn’t the first collision to involve the use of autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has investigated at least 26 Tesla autopilot crashes in the last five years. Almost a dozen people have died as a result. 

Proving Negligence or Recklessness

Is it the fault of the driver? Or the fault of the technology?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has created a term for what they consider to be human misuse of technology. They call it automation complacency. The NTSB says people rely too much on technology and become inattentive and disengaged. 

The laws in every state hold the human driver responsible in case of a crash. Drivers may not know this. And they may not understand when and how to use this old technology in a new way. After all, autopilot technology has been in use in planes for a long time. 

Tesla has said that the autopilot feature and its “full self-driving” system cannot drive themselves, despite their name. Human drivers need to be ready to react. But is Tesla immune from responsibility for the use of its technology? 

Have they created a dangerous technology that could leave drivers’ criminally liable?

The families of the crash victims are suing the driver for negligence and Tesla for selling a defective vehicle. They say the vehicle could accelerate suddenly and that it lacked an effective automatic braking system. These civil cases go to trial next year. 

The family also says the driver was an unsafe driver, with moving violations on his driving record. Evidence of past driving violations could be damaging. 

If you have been charged with a vehicle-related crime – reckless driving or vehicular manslaughter – you need a strong defense. Call the Fort Worth criminal defense attorneys at Lee and Wood, LP: 817-678-6771 or contact us online