Family of man in Tesla crash alleges car was a death trap

Rescuers could not open doors of burning car because of high-tech design, lawsuit claims

WASHINGTON • Dr Omar Awan was driving his dream car when he lost control. The sleek, blue Model S Tesla careened across a road in South Florida and slammed into a palm tree.

But it was not the crash that killed him, his family's lawyers allege - it was the car's futuristic design features.

The last moments of Dr Awan's life were gruesome and excruciating. After the crash, the Tesla's lithium ion battery caught fire.

Smoke - and then flames - filled the car, suffocating Dr Awan and burning him from his feet up.

Outside, a crowd gathered but could not help. That was because the car's retractable door handles, which are supposed to "auto-present" when they detect a key fob nearby, malfunctioned and first responders were not able to open the doors and save Dr Awan, alleges a wrongful-death lawsuit.

"The fire engulfed the car and burned Dr Awan beyond recognition - all because the Model S has inaccessible door handles, no other way to open the doors, and an unreasonably dangerous fire risk," the complaint reads.

"These Model S defects and others," the suit says, "rendered it a death trap."

Dr Awan, a 48-year-old anaesthesiologist and father of five, leased the Model S for two reasons, family attorney Stuart Grossman said - he was environmentally sensitive and safety conscious.

Tesla, maker of electric vehicles, has claimed that the Model S once achieved "the best safety rating of any car tested".


So Dr Awan, who could have afforded a Mercedes or another luxury vehicle, went with the 2016 Tesla. And it killed him, Mr Grossman said.

"These things, they just love to burn," he said. "The car is so over-engineered."

Tesla's public relations team did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, filed this month, and the company's lawyers have yet to respond in court.

But shortly after the February crash, a Tesla spokesman told the Florida Sun-Sentinel that "we are deeply saddened by this accident" but that "Tesla vehicles are engineered to be the safest cars in the world and Tesla drivers have driven more than 10 billion miles to date".

Dr Awan's death is one in a string of recent incidents that have been blamed on Tesla's innovative technology.

A lawsuit stemming from a May 2018 crash that killed two teenagers also blamed a battery fire for at least one of the deaths.

Mr Grossman represents the car's third passenger, who survived the accident after being thrown from the vehicle.

In April, surveillance footage from a Shanghai parking garage showed smoke billowing from a Model S moments before the car burst into flames. The widely shared video prompted Tesla to open an internal investigation.

Several other suits have attributed deaths to Tesla's "autopilot" system, an automatic driver-assistance feature.

"There are a number of these cases," Mr Grossman said. "What the hell is going on?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2019, with the headline 'Family of man in Tesla crash alleges car was a death trap'. Print Edition | Subscribe