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Tesla Requests Change of Venue to Japan in Autopilot Wrongful Death Lawsuit

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Electric automaker Tesla requested a change of venue from California to Japan on Wednesday in a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. The suit was filed by the family of a 44-year-old Japanese man who was killed in 2018 after a Tesla Model X operating on the Autopilot automated driving function crashed into a crowd of people on the side of an expressway near Tokyo.

Citing the doctrine of forum non conveniens, Tesla asserted that Japan is a more appropriate venue, and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in the Northern District of California.

The wrongful death complaint alleges that while the Autopilot function was activated the vehicle “suddenly accelerated” from a speed of about 15 kilometers per hour to approximately 38 kilometers per hour after the vehicle directly ahead of it switched lanes. The Tesla vehicle then collided with a motorcycle, a van, and the crowd of pedestrians. The complaint alleges the driver of the vehicle was drowsy at the time of the accident, and some reports suggest he might have been asleep. The lawsuit includes claims for strict products liability, negligence, wrongful death, and loss of consortium against Tesla.

Tesla issued a public statement noting that the company “acknowledges the potential argument that California has an interest in preventing the conduct plaintiffs allege Tesla committed in California [which Tesla explicitly denies].” However, the company contends California ultimately does not have an interest in the case. “This case is about alleged injury and damages to Japanese citizens, rather than wrongdoing that allegedly occurred in California,” Tesla said.

In their motion to dismiss, Tesla argued Japan’s sophisticated justice system would provide redress for the injuries and causes of all actions alleged in the complaint. Tesla also asserted Japan is the more suitable venue given that the witnesses to the incident, the plaintiffs, and the driver of the Model X are located there. Additionally, Tesla cited the issue of any physical evidence related to the collision being in Japan.

“If this court maintains jurisdiction over this matter, Tesla’s ability to prepare for and eventually conduct trial will be severely limited,” Tesla said. “The prejudicial effect of critical witnesses and evidence not being available at or before trial is plain. Japan is the only place where Tesla can obtain the critical witness’s testimony, physical evidence, and other documentary evidence needed to defend this case.”

Tesla also argued that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. federal court system — specifically high caseloads, budget shortages, and backlogged cases — should be considered when determining the appropriate venue. “The scarce and already taxed resources available to this court would be best spent on disputes more directly related to local issues and controversies,” Tesla said.

Tomomi Umeda and Miyu Umeda, the wife and daughter, respectively, of the deceased Yoshihiro Umeda, accuse Tesla of developing and selling inherently flawed vehicles containing “half-baked” safety measures. The complaint alleges that the accident which killed Umeda could have been prevented if Tesla applied more advanced technology and safety methods in the vehicle’s Autopilot system rather than “using the world’s highways as test beds and information-gathering sites for its technology.”

Additionally, the Umeda family alleges, “Tesla’s decision to release a half-baked product to the public that is currently still in a ‘beta-testing’ stage of development continues to put the general public, other motorists, and all of those who share the road with Tesla’s vehicles, including pedestrians and the drivers of Tesla’s vehicles themselves, at risk of becoming the next casualty.”

Furthermore, The Umedas allege the accident occurred due to defective technology in Tesla’s Autopilot driver monitoring system. Autopilot reportedly relies primarily on input to the steering wheel to help determine whether or not a driver is alert and in control of the vehicle.

“If Tesla’s past behavior of blaming its vehicles’ drivers is any example, Tesla likely will portray this accident as the sole result of a drowsy, inattentive driver in order to distract from the obvious shortcomings of its automated driver assistance technology,” the Umedas stated in the complaint. “These failures are especially egregious where Tesla knows the specific limitations and issues with its Autopilot technology and suite of driver assistance features, yet continues to widely tout and suggest to [the] world that its cars are essentially autonomous.”

The ruling on the change of venue request is currently pending.