Lawsuit Blames Tesla, Caltrans for Death of Driver in U.S. 101 Crash

A Tesla Model X driven by Walter Huang burns after crashing March 23, 2018, on U.S. 101 in Mountain View. Huang died of injuries suffered in the crash. (NBC Bay Area via Twitter)

The family of a Foster City software engineer who died last year after his Tesla SUV crashed into a Silicon Valley freeway barrier has filed a lawsuit that blames the automaker and Caltrans for the fatal incident.

Walter Huang, 38, was killed March 23, 2018, when his Tesla Model X smashed into a lane divider on U.S. 101 in Mountain View.

A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that Huang did not have his hands on the vehicle's steering wheel for the final 6 seconds before the crash and that the car accelerated sharply just prior to impact.

The suit filed Tuesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court on behalf of Huang's wife and two children takes aim at claims from Tesla that its often-updated Autopilot driver-assist system enhances its vehicles' safety.

"Mrs. Huang lost her husband and two children lost their father because Tesla is beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers," B. Mark Fong, one of the lawyers representing the family, said in a statement.

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The lawsuit also alleges that despite Tesla's advertising and promotion of its cars as "state of the art," automated systems in the Model X were deficient and lagged behind offerings from other automakers.

The vehicle lacked a "properly designed crash avoidance system," the complaint says, citing the lack of an automatic emergency braking system similar those the suit states were already available on other cars when Huang bought his Model X in late 2017.

A Tesla spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit. But the company says that all of its cars, including the Model X, now come equipped with automatic emergency braking.

The lawsuit also accuses Caltrans of contributing to Huang's death by failing to maintain a roadside safety device at the site of the crash.

As Huang drove southbound in U.S. 101 left lane, his Model X approached a left-side exit lane for Highway 85. A concrete wall divides the two lanes near the point where they diverged -- an area commonly known as a gore point.

Caltrans had installed a crash attenuator -- a device meant to collapse and dissipate the energy of crashing vehicles and stop them from hitting roadside hazards like the concrete lane divider at the Highway 85 exit -- at the collision site.

But the device had been left unrepaired after a vehicle struck it about 11 days before the Huang incident. In its damaged state, the attenuator did little reduce the impact when Huang's Model X hit it at 70 mph.

Failure to maintain the crash attenuator or to alert drivers to the danger amounted to steering motorists into "a trap," the lawsuit says.

A Caltrans spokesperson said the agency cannot discuss pending litigation.