Electric car maker Tesla was negligent for disabling a speed limiter but the 18-year-old driver of a 2018 Model S bore most of the blame for his death in a high-speed crash in May 2018, a jury found Monday.
The verdict capped a two-week trial over a lawsuit by the driver’s father, James Riley, blaming Tesla for the death of his son Barrett Riley. The crash and resulting battery fire on Seabreeze Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale also killed Edgar Monserratt Martinez, a fellow senior at private Pine Crest High School.
Both teens died at the scene of the crash. A back seat passenger was ejected from the vehicle and survived.
The trial was held at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Magistrate Judge Alicia O. Valle presided.
Although Tesla was found negligent for disabling a speed limiter in the vehicle without consent from Barrett Riley’s father, the jury found the company was just 1% responsible for the young man’s death.
Barrett Riley was 90% responsible and James Riley was 9% responsible, the jury found.
At the same time, the jury found that Barrett Riley’s mother Jenny Riley sustained $6 million in damages for pain and suffering while James Riley sustained $4.5 million in damages.
But the jury’s apportionment of responsibility means that Tesla will only be liable to pay $105,000, said Curt Miner, attorney with Coral Gables-based Colson Hicks Eidson, representing James Riley.
Originally, James Riley’s lawsuit accused Tesla of removing the speed limiter without his permission and of designing defective lithium ion batteries that “burst into an uncontrollable and fatal fire” upon impact. The suit argued that the crash was “entirely survivable” and that the fire killed Barrett Riley.
The court dismissed the defective battery claim, however, leaving Tesla to defend only the charge that its Dania Beach service center was negligent in disabling a speed limiter that the elder Riley had ordered installed to prevent his son from operating the car at speeds over 85 mph.
During the trial, Tesla denied it was negligent in disabling the speed limiter or that the absence of a speed limiter was a cause in the crash or deaths.
Barrett Riley himself was negligent in the operation and use of the vehicle, Tesla argued. The company also argued that the parents were negligent in allowing their 18-year-old son drive the vehicle “when they were aware of his history of speeding and reckless driving,” according to the judge’s instructions to the jury.
In December 2019, a National Transportation Safety Board report determined that the most likely cause of the crash “was the driver’s loss of control as a result of excessive speed.”
The investigation report noted that about a month before the crash, Barrett Riley asked workers at Tesla’s Dania Beach dealership to return the car to normal operating mode while it was being serviced.
The NTSB found that Barrett Riley was driving at 116 mph on Seabreeze Boulevard, a road near the beach with a posted speed limit of 30 mph.
As he approached a curve, Riley swerved into the oncoming lane to pass a vehicle, then lost control as he tried to return to the right lane while attempting to negotiate the curve, the report said. As the Tesla exited the curve, it struck a curb, crossed the sidewalk and struck a wall on the north side of a residential driveway.
After striking a second wall, witnesses reported seeing flames coming from the car. It reentered the road, struck the other curb, hit a metal light pole and rotated before stopping in a residential driveway, engulfed in flames.
The NTSB report found the fire contributed to the severity of the teens’ injuries.
Battery fires have come under scrutiny in numerous crashes involving Teslas. The Model S battery pack, consisting of hundreds of individual cylindrical cells arranged in 16 modules that are mounted to the vehicle’s underside, can ignite when ruptured, then evade suppression efforts as they undergo a process called “thermal runaway.”
After the crash, the batteries ignited three more times as workers loaded the vehicle onto tow trucks to move it to a storage yard.
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The case was the first against Tesla involving an accident with one of its vehicles to go to trial, Miner said.
“We are pleased that … the jury found Tesla to have been negligent in removing the speed limiter without letting Mr. or Mrs. Riley know,” Miner said by email. “Because of Jim Riley’s initiative in urging Tesla to make the speed limiter function available to customers to enable on their own, we hope the legacy of this case has been to prevent other accidents and save lives.”
A month after the fatal crash, Tesla introduced a speed limiter feature that owners could turn on and off themselves. A description of the function included the statement, “In memory of Barrett Riley.”
Miner said the Rileys are considering filing an appeal. The only way to increase the damages that Tesla would have to pay in the matter would be to convince an appellate court to reinstate the faulty battery claim.
Another suit stemming from the crash, on behalf of Martinez, is pending in Broward County circuit court.
Tesla’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the verdict.
Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.