The futuristic door handles on Tesla Inc.’s Model S are being blamed for causing a driver’s death in a crash where a police officer was unable to pull him to safety from his burning car.
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.
The door handles on the Model S are flush with the car and pop out -- “auto-present” in the words of Tesla -- when they detect that the key fob is nearby.
“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.
Read More from Blomberg: What First Responders Don’t Know About Fiery Electric Vehicles
Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Consumer Reports said in 2015 that broken door handles were one of the most common problems with the Model S. Drivers have also complained about being unable to access their cars when the handles are covered in snow or ice.
Awan’s Tesla continued to burn for hours, reigniting several times even after firefighters had extinguished the flames and the car had been towed, according to the complaint.
Door handles' origin
The genesis of the door handles was noted in a Wired magazine cover story about Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who insisted on them even though it "was unanimous among the executive staff that the complex door handle idea was crazy," a former executive told Wired in the story posted in December 2018.
The door handle innovation "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," the article said.
A top safety advocate in Washington raised questions about the door handles.
“While they often get high scores on crash tests, Tesla’s focus on style over safety and features that push up stock prices rather than protecting occupants and others on the road continues to raise serious concerns," Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in an e-mail to Automotive News. "Tesla should have learned by now that cars catch on fire and first responders must be able to extricate victims from burning vehicles - even if that means making door handles which are accessible at all times.”
Meanwhile, this isn’t the only case to fault the Model S’s lithium-ion batteries as flammable. The family of an 18-year-old who lost control of his Tesla at 116 mph and crashed into a concrete wall last year blames an explosion of the battery for his death in an “entirely survivable” crash, according to a suit filed this month in state court in San Jose, California.
Awan’s case is Awan v. Tesla Inc., 19-021110, Circuit Court of Broward County, Florida.
Philip Nussel of Automotive News contributed to this report.