After a year filled with production setbacks, billion-dollar loses, and a number of incidents surrounding the use of their autonomous driving mode, last week Tesla was riding high as the electric car maker posted unexpected third-quarter profits.
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Unfortunately, those positive vibes were short-lived. The family of a Tesla driver has filed a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from an incident last February in which Omar Awan lost control of his S3 and crashed into a palm tree in Broward Country, Fla. The vehicle’s battery immediately caught fire and the airbags deployed, which should have also triggered the doors and trunk to unlock, and the retractable door handles to extend.
Tragically, the door handles malfunctioned and remained flush with the door panel. Under normal conditions, the handles would retract when coming in close proximity with the vehicle’s key fob.
So, as bystanders and law enforcement officials tried and failed to open the door and get Awan to safety, he died from smoke inhalation and burns. Many unconfirmed reports also state that the airbags failed to deflate, hindering access to the internal door handle. Awan reportedly had no internal injuries or broken bones.
The suit calls out these malfunctioning door handles as contributing to Awan’s death.
The Tesla door handles have a long history, with a Wired article citing that many Tesla officials lobbied against the retractable design, only to be overridden by company founder Elon Musk. The handles also have a legacy that includes frequent breaks and getting frozen in place during cold weather.
Although the door handle is the focus of the lawsuit, the blaze created by the crash also spotlights the challenges that lithium-ion battery fires present for first responders. The extinguishers used by police at this crash were essentially worthless, as these types of battery fire requires a great deal of water to bring under control. And even after the fire was initially extinguished, it reignited twice before being the vehicle was towed away.
Omar Awan was 48. His family is reportedly seeking upwards of $15,000 in damages. It is worth noting that Awan was driving more than 75 miles per hour at the time of the accident.