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Tesla on Trial Over Toddler Crashing Model X Into Pregnant Mom

  • Tesla is on trial over a negligence lawsuit brought by a mom whose toddler hit her with her Model X. 
  • The California mom alleges in the lawsuit that the 2018 Model X was “defective” in its design.
  • Tesla has argued the mother is to blame and that the Model X’s design likely saved her life.

Is Tesla to blame for a toddler crashing his family’s Model X SUV into his pregnant mother, injuring her?

That’s what a California jury will soon weigh in a civil trial that could raise questions about the vehicle’s safety features and force Elon Musk’s electric car company to pay out hefty monetary damages.

Opening statements in the trial, taking place in a Santa Clara County courtroom, are expected to begin this week.

California mom alleges that the Tesla Model X was ‘defective’

In 2019, California mother Mallory Harcourt filed a lawsuit against Tesla over the incident, accusing it of negligence, consumer fraud, and product liability. Harcourt alleges in the suit that her brand-new 2018 Model X SUV was “defective” in its design because her 2-year-old son managed to start the vehicle and hit her with it outside of the family’s Santa Barbara home on December 27, 2018.

The mother, who was eight months pregnant with her second child at the time, was left pinned to a wall in her garage when the vehicle accelerated, according to the lawsuit. Harcourt suffered broken bones and gave birth to her daughter prematurely through a broken pelvis about a week later, court documents say.

“Mallory’s injuries healed over time, but her pain is permanent,” Harcourt’s attorneys wrote in an April 8 legal brief.

“No one could reasonably expect a two-year-old who climbs into the floorboard of a vehicle that is in Park with its parking brake on to be able to cause the vehicle to start, shift out of Park and into Drive and move,” the lawyers added. “Such a vehicle is defective.”

Tesla autopilot

The Tesla dashboard.

Chicago Tribune / Getty

Jurors at the trial will hear from Harcourt’s attorneys how the mother and her husband purchased a Model X as their family vehicle after seeing advertisements about it being the “safest, quickest, most capable SUV ever,” according to the brief.

The incident occurred just four days after the parents bought the Model X, and shortly after Harcourt pulled into their driveway with their son in tow.

“The vehicle automatically shifted into Park and set the parking brake,” the brief says.

Harcourt removed her son, identified as B.H., from his car seat and left the driver’s door open, it says.

“Mallory realized she had forgotten her house keys at the office and was not able to enter the home,” the brief says. “B.H. had a dirty diaper so she decided to change him in the garage.”

At some point, the boy “escaped” from his mother and climbed into the vehicle’s footwell through the open door, according to the brief.

“He then contacted the brake pedal, which started the car and automatically closed the driver’s door. Seconds later, B.H. reached up and touched the gear shift lever on the stalk of the steering wheel, which shifted the car out of Park and into Drive,” the brief says.

“B.H. then contacted the accelerator pedal, which caused the car to begin moving forward. From the time B.H. entered the Tesla until it began moving was mere seconds,” it continues.

Harcourt saw the Tesla as it was entering the garage, and had “virtually no time to react,” the court filing says.

“She moved towards the front of the Tesla hoping the vehicle would recognize her and stop since the Tesla was equipped with technology that she understood would recognize if the vehicle was going to hit something and stop,” the brief says.

The Model X then accelerated to over 8 miles-per-hour and struck Harcourt, it says.

“The Tesla picked her up just below her waist and lifted her off the ground, then crushed her against bicycles and various clutter at the back of the garage,” the court filing says, adding, that the impact fractured Mallory’s pelvis in multiple places, fractured her fibula, and caused a deep puncture wound to her thigh.

Neighbors ultimately helped free Harcourt from the vehicle.

Tesla has placed the blame squarely on the mother

Tesla has argued in court documents that Harcourt is only to blame for the incident and that the Model X’s design likely saved her life.

“The evidence will prove that Ms. Harcourt was the sole cause of her injuries and that sophisticated driver assistance features in the Model X saved her and her children from far more serious injuries,” Tesla’s attorneys wrote in a trial brief filed on April 8 that details how the carmaker will defend itself.

“Ms. Harcourt negligently left her two-year old son unattended in her driveway with access to a vehicle that had two doors open and the keys inside, and for long enough to allow him to get into the vehicle, step on the pedals, and put it into gear,” Tesla’s attorneys wrote.

Tesla’s lawyers said in the court filing that Harcourt then “made the highly extraordinary decision to jump in front of the Model X as it was moving. This entire incident could have been avoided by either keeping watch over the toddler, or, failing that, using the PIN-to-Drive option.”

Tesla’s PIN-to-drive option is a safety measure that requires the owner to put in a four-digit password in order to drive the vehicle, according to Tesla’s website.

“In no uncertain terms, Ms. Harcourt’s own actions caused her injuries, and not any defect in Model X’s design,” Tesla’s attorneys wrote.

It was Harcourt’s own “poor decisions,” Tesla’s attorneys wrote, “that put herself, her son and her unborn child at significant risk.”

The carmaker’s lawyers explained in their brief that the Model X is an all-electric vehicle, and pressing the brake powers it on like turning the key would in a gasoline-powered car.

Harcourt’s son “pressed the accelerator pedal, and the Model X moved forward slowly,” the lawyers said.

“Ms. Harcourt admits she did not know where her son was at this time, but when she saw the Model X moving into the garage, she — at 8 months’ pregnant — nonetheless stepped in front of the vehicle, now claiming she believed that would make it stop.”

Tesla’s attorneys say that vehicle data shows that the Model X’s “Brake Override” and “Obstacle-Aware Acceleration” advanced driver assistance features were activated at the time of the incident, limiting the speed of the SUV, “despite B.H. pressing the accelerator pedal to 100%.”

The Model X, the lawyers wrote in the brief, “functioned exactly as designed and very likely saved Ms. Harcourt’s life.”

Tesla has faced its fair share of safety-related lawsuits

It’s far from the first time Tesla’s lawyers have appeared in court over safety concerns. Like many automakers, Tesla has faced multiple lawsuits over accidents and the company’s potential role in the crashes. Tesla owners have sued the carmaker over anything from battery fires and phantom braking incidents to its driver assist software.

Last year, a woman sued Tesla after her husband’s Model 3 allegedly exploded on impact, ultimately causing his death. In 2022 — in what was Tesla’s first trial involving a fatal crash —a Florida jury awarded the families of two teens who were killed in an accident involving a Model S $10.5 million.

The jury found Tesla 1% to blame for the crash and the driver and his family 99% to blame. The lawsuit alleged Tesla played a role in the accident by allowing the driver, Barrett Riley, to remove a speed limiter that the family had previously installed on the vehicle. Riley and his passenger had died after the car crashed into a concrete barrier going 116 miles per hour and caught fire.

On April 8, Tesla settled a lawsuit related to its Autopilot software after the family of a man who died in a crash in which the software was activated had alleged the car was “defective in design.”

Over the past few years, Tesla has come under increased scrutiny from regulators regarding driver-assist technology.

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