Utah Autopilot Crash Driver Suing Tesla, Claims Brakes "Did Not Work"

More bad legal news has emerged for Tesla at a time when it's the last thing the company needs.

A Tesla driver in Utah whose vehicle slammed itself into a stopped fire truck at a red light earlier this year is now suing the company, claiming that when she bought the car she was told that it would stop on its own if the Autopilot was on and something was in the vehicle's path. 

The driver, Heather Lommatzsch, reportedly wrote in her lawsuit that she was told in 2016, when she purchased her Tesla Model S, that she only had to "touch the steering wheel occasionally while using Autopilot mode". She also claims that she tried to engage the brakes when she saw the vehicle stopped ahead of her, but that the car's brakes simply "did not work".

The accident took place in May and as a result, Lommatzsch wound up with a broken foot as well as a traffic citation for failure to keep a proper lookout. Occupants of the fire truck suffered minor injuries but were not hospitalized. Tesla went on record in a statement that addressed the lawsuit, stating it has "always been clear that Autopilot does not make the car impervious to all accidents."

However, Tesla sleuths on Twitter have consistently pointed out that Tesla's own interviews and media coverage surrounding Autopilot seem to encourage drivers from keeping their hands on the wheel while Autopilot is engaged.

CNBC even labeled a puff piece on Tesla's Autopilot "Tesla's Autopilot: How it Feels Hands Free" back in 2015.

Meanwhile Tesla is blaming the driver: the company brought up that she was cited and that the final police report from the scene said that she had told police she was looking at her phone prior to the crash. Data taken from her vehicle reportedly showed that she "did not touch the steering wheel for 80 seconds before the crash". Additional data from her vehicle shows that it picked up speed for 3 1/2 seconds before crashing.

The suggested order of events by local police was as follows:

  1. The Tesla was following another vehicle and it slowed down to 55 mph to keep pace with it
  2. The vehicle in front of the Tesla changed lanes 
  3. The Tesla may have sped back up to its preset speed of 60 miles an hour
  4. The Tesla may not have then taken into account the stopped traffic in front of it

In the lawsuit, Lommatzsch says that she has suffered "serious physical injuries that have deprived her of being able to enjoy life" and "substantial medical bills". She is seeking $300,000 in damages.

As the AP article notes, the NTSB recently issued additional findings about two other separate crashes involving Autopilot:

The agency found that a Tesla Model S electric car that crashed and burned last month in Florida, killing two teenagers, was traveling 116 mph (187 kph) three seconds before impact and only slowed to 86 mpg (138 kph) as the air bags were inflated.

The agency said that a Tesla Model X SUV using Autopilot accelerated just before crashing into a California freeway barrier in March, killing its driver.

It’s unclear whether or not a lawsuit will be filed in these cases. The Utah crash is still under investigation. 

With the overhang from a formal SEC investigation prompting Tesla's Board of Directors and its CEO to "lawyer up in a major way", as we reported yesterday, and the company's cash balances dwindling, the last thing Tesla needs is a new sieve of legal liabilities opening up. We will monitor this case as it moves forward.