With the proliferation of advanced safety features on cars, lawyers handling auto-injury cases could find they need a new set of skills.
Automaker Tesla Inc. is facing a suit in federal court in Camden by a New Jersey Turnpike toll collector, who claims she was injured due to the unintended acceleration of one of the carmaker’s vehicles.
With allegations that the car’s automated emergency braking system failed to prevent the car from accelerating at full power, the suit could be a harbinger of future auto accident litigation, focusing on the functioning of electronic systems as much as on the actions of the driver.
Casey Colonna of Smith Magram Michaud & Colonna in Burlington, New Jersey, who represents the plaintiff, did not respond to a reporter’s call about the case.
And Erica Mekles of Bowman and Brooke in New Brunswick, New Jersey, removed the suit to federal court on Tesla’s behalf. She did not respond to a request for comment about the case.
Alleged Sudden Acceleration
Plaintiff Sharon Scott was working as a toll collector at the Turnpike’s Interchange 3 in Bellmawr, New Jersey, on Jan. 26, 2020, when a 2019 Tesla Model X, driven by Kim Guo of Roslyn, New York, accelerated as it approached the toll booth, causing a crash.
Guo said she did not willingly operate the vehicle to accelerate as it did, or intend for it to accelerate at a high rate of speed, according to the suit.
For several years, Tesla drivers have reported their cars accelerate at full power, even if the driver reports he or she did not press the accelerator at all or to a degree that would call for application of full power, the suit claims.
Tesla has faced at least one other suit in a New Jersey federal court for sudden acceleration. That case, filed pro se in January 2019 by vehicle owner Rajinder Madan, was dismissed without prejudice for deficient pleadings.
Elsewhere, multiple suits against Tesla have raised the issue of sudden acceleration.
Tesla has argued that its cars do not exhibit unintended acceleration.
In a 2020 blog post, Tesla said, “We investigate every single incident where the driver alleges to us that their vehicle accelerated contrary to their input, and in every case where we had the vehicle’s data, we confirmed that the car operated as designed. In other words, the car accelerates if, and only if, the driver told it to do so, and it slows or stops when the driver applies the brake.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also investigated reports of sudden acceleration in Tesla cars and concluded that drivers were confusing the brake and accelerator pedals, the agency said in 2021.
Scott’s suit asserts that the first suit claiming unintended acceleration in Tesla’s Model X was filed in 2016, one year after that model was introduced. The model has an automatic emergency braking system that applies the brakes when a collision appears imminent, in order to reduce the severity. But that system is deactivated when it receives a signal from the accelerator pedal to drive full speed, even when driving into a fixed object, the suit said.
Tesla is allegedly liable to Scott because its vehicle has a propensity to apply full power when the driver has not commanded such power, it lacks a fail-safe system to cut the power when the vehicle applies full acceleration and there are fixed objects in its path, and it lacked sufficient warnings about the dangers it presents, the suit claims.
The suit was filed in Camden County Superior Court on Jan. 18 and removed to federal court on Monday. It brings claims under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and under the New Jersey Product Liability Act, and seeks compensatory and punitive damages.