Door Handles Blamed For Driver's Death In Tesla Model S Fire

Photos: Tesla

A wrongful death lawsuit filed with the Circuit Court of Broward County, Florida earlier this month alleges the motorised retractable door handles on the Tesla Model S prevented the rescue of the driver as smoke and flames filled the cabin.

Here’s more on the lawsuit, Awan v. Tesla Inc., 19-021110, from Bloomberg:

Omar Awan, a 48-year-old anesthesiologist, was driving his leased Tesla in February when he lost control on a south Florida parkway and the car slammed into a palm tree, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in state court in Broward County.

A police officer couldn’t open the doors because the handles were retracted and bystanders watched helplessly as the car filled with smoke and flames, according to the complaint, which alleges the fire originated with the car’s battery.

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“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,” according to the Oct. 10 suit. The complaint lists the cause of death as smoke inhalation and states that Awan had sustained no internal injuries or broken bones in the crash.

According to The Sun Sentinel’s reporting on the crash from February of this year, Awan was driving his 2016 Tesla Model S between 120km/h and 145km/h before hitting a tree 3 kilometres from his home. The car reportedly caught fire multiple times, first at the time of the crash, and then later when it reignited several times in a tow yard.

While Tesla has always claimed the risk of a fire in an electric vehicle is no greater than the risk of fire with a combustion vehicle, the company has a history of its cars catching fire and generating headlines, as well as having to deal with emergency response teams not being equipped or prepared enough to battle battery fires.

Tesla has a guide on its website on how to best manage electric vehicle fires, with guides for each of its current and past products for emergency response crews to follow.

Here’s how the guide for the 2016 Tesla Model S, which features the same door handles cited in the lawsuit on Omar Awan’s vehicle, which can mechanically retract and lie flush with the body of the car, instructs first responders to open the doors:

Screenshot: Tesla

It’s unclear whether or not the airbags inflated in Awan’s crash, but the reports from the scene indicate that even if they did, the car’s door handles did not pop out. That would mean first responders would have to reach into the burning car to open the door with the interior handle, if access through a window was available depending on the state of the vehicle after the crash.

Since the complaint attributes Awan’s death to smoke inhalation, claiming he suffered “no internal injuries or broken bones,” the complaint suggests he may have survived had first responders or bystanders had access to the car’s door handles and were able to remove him.

As Bloomberg also points out, a 2018 Wired story quoted a former Tesla exec on Elon Musk’s insistence to include the troublesome door handles, despite executive pushback. From Wired:

Many Tesla executives have stories about how Musk reset their concept of the possible, but the classic tale is about retractable door handles.

In the mid-2000s, the company was designing the luxury Model S when Musk insisted the car needed handles that would lie flush against its body. They would glide out, as if by magic, just as the owner reached the vehicle, by responding to a signal from an electronic key.

“It was unanimous among the executive staff that the complex door handle idea was crazy,” said a former executive. It required incredibly complicated engineering, and it solved a problem that no one else thought was actually a problem. But no matter how forcefully executives objected, Musk wouldn’t yield.

Even once the car was released, the handles sometimes proved troublesome. When Consumer Reports wanted to review a Model S in 2015, it had to postpone the analysis because “the fancy retractable door handles refused to let us in.”

Along with Consumer Reports’ issues, many owners have also complained that the trick handles, at least on earlier models that feature them, freeze shut in cold weather, with others reporting that their car’s handles have just randomly stopped working, even after multiple service appointments to remedy the issue.

Another point of concern in this lawsuit is the battery fire that resulted from the crash, and the multiple times the vehicle reignited after the crash. More on that from The Sun Sentinel:

“We have a problem where the car keeps catching fire because the battery pack itself hasn’t drained yet,” said Davie Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Robert Diferdinando. The car’s battery pack is essentially the size of the car’s undercarriage and because it still has power it dries everything and keeps catching fire, Diferdinando explained.“We’ve been in touch with their [Tesla’s] South Florida division. They’re giving us helpful tips and information. Right now, we’re doing literally what Tesla wants us to to,” he said.

After consulting with the local police department’s investigators, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board — the independent government agency tasked with investigating civil transportation accidents — decided against further investigating Awan’s crash and death.

Here’s more on the NTSB’s reasoning for not investigating, from The Sun Sentinel:

After speaking with the Davie police department’s traffic homicide investigators, the NTSB decided not to investigate the crash, Christopher O’Neil, chief of media relations, said Tuesday. The NTSB investigates all aviation crashes but not all automotive incidents.

“At the end of the day, we have all of these other investigations where we feel like we’ll have a good body of investigative evidence, upon which to make good safety recommendations to help prevent recurrence,” O’Neil said.

Two of the “other investigations” O’Neil may be referring to are the NTSB’s investigation of an incident in August of 2017, where a Tesla crashed into a stranger’s parked car in a garage and sparked a large house fire, and another investigation into an incident in May of 2018 where a Tesla reportedly crashed into a light pole at around 187km/h and ignited, leaving two teenage passengers dead and a third injured.

The NTSB’s preliminary report on the May 2018 incident claims the Tesla later reignited while attempting to remove the wreckage from the scene, and then again at the storage yard.

Here’s more on the NTSB’s investigation of the May 2018 incident, from Reuters:

NTSB said its investigation into the Florida crash that killed two teenagers in the vehicle “will also include examining the procedures used to extinguish the battery fire and to remove and store the car postcrash.”

Tesla says its vehicle battery packs rarely incur significant damage and the pack is designed that in the event of a fire it would spread more slowly than a gasoline-vehicle fire. Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk has said “there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid.”

There’s no record of the NTSB completing either investigation yet on the organisation’s website. You can read more about its investigation process here.

In December of 2018, a Tesla Model S reportedly caught fire while parked in a parking lot—it was not involved in a collision. After response teams initially put out the fire, the vehicle later reportedly reignited at the tire shop it had been towed to.

Earlier this year, a viral video showed a Tesla Model S seemingly spontaneously combust into flames while parked in a parking garage. Again, it did not appear the car had been involved in any sort of collision. Tesla later claimed it identified a single faulty battery module on that specific car as the cause for the fire, and issued an over-the-air update for its vehicles that revised charging and thermal management systems on the car.

Even though the NTSB continues to investigate multiple concerns over Tesla’s vehicles, including battery fires and crashes that may have involved Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot cruise control system, none of the organisation’s investigations appears to directly address any potential issue with the retracting door handles.

We have reached out to Tesla about the lawsuit and will update when more information is available.

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