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Tesla Model S an interesting study of the relationship between consumer warnings and design defects,

In our last post, we began looking at Tesla Motors’ push to equip its vehicles with automatic driving technology. As we noted, though, even as the company is pushing the technology, it is facing the prospect of product liability litigation over accidents involving its Model S Autopilot feature.

Product liability litigation, generally speaking, can involve several types of legal theories. These include negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and violation of state commercial statutes. Several common claims brought in product liability litigation are that the product design was defective, that the product was manufactured defectively, and that the manufacturer failed to provide adequate safety warnings to consumers. In the case of Tesla, one of the potential issues that could arise is the relationship between a company’s duty to design products that are free of defect and its duty to warn consumers of the dangers associated with ordinary use of the product. 

Although Tesla did provide warnings to consumers about the need to monitor the vehicle even when the Autopilot feature is engaged, providing warnings may not be enough to correct problems inherent in a vehicle’s design, especially when the design feature in question was misleadingly marketed. It is interesting to note that the California Department of Motor Vehicles has issued a draft regulation which orders the company to stop using the terms “self-driving,” “automated,” and “auto-pilot” in its advertising, unless its vehicles are able to operate without any driver supervision.

In the Florida accident, it could be argued that there was a defect in the design of the software, which does nothing to ensure drivers remain alert. It could also be argued that the cameras or sensors were defectively designed, since they failed to detect objects a motorist would reasonably assume they should be able to detect. The success of any product liability case depends, to an extent, on the legal theory the plaintiff is pursuing. It remains to be seen which legal theories, if any, will be successful against Tesla in the Autopilot cases, or whether the manufacturer will be able to shift blame back onto motorists.

In any product liability case, working with an experienced attorney is essential to ensure one has the best possible chance to hold a manufacturer accountable for putting a substandard product out on the market.

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