Santa Barbara resident Mallory Harcourt filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Tesla, alleging a potentially deadly design flaw in the electric car company’s 2018 Model X.
Harcourt, represented by Orange County law firm Gokal Law Group, claims that on December 27, 2018, she’d parked her Tesla SUV in her driveway with the motor off. She unbuckled her 2-year-old son from his car seat and picked up an armful of groceries, which she carried toward the garage with the toddler a few steps behind.
Suddenly, the lawsuit states, Harcourt’s son ran back to the car, climbed through an open back door and into the driver’s seat, managed to put the car in gear, and accelerated toward Harcourt, who was eight months pregnant at the time. The 5,500-pound SUV slammed into her, carried her into the garage, and pinned her against the back wall. The impact cracked her pelvis and broke her leg. “I was trapped and had to scream until someone heard me and came for help,” Harcourt said in a press statement. Due to the trauma, Harcourt, 31, soon went into labor and delivered her baby daughter a month prematurely.
Harcourt’s attorney, Alison Gokal, claimed the vehicle doesn’t have the proper safety controls to ensure it’s not unintentionally operated. “My clients are absolutely terrified of this happening to another family and want Tesla to prevent a repeat of this tragedy,” she said. Gokal had initially sent letters to Tesla demanding a formal apology and asking the company to improve the Model X’s start-and-drive functionality, but Tesla replied that Harcourt’s vehicle “responded to the operator’s inputs, as designed — albeit, in this case, some of those inputs were reportedly coming from your client’s young son.”
Tesla explained its vehicles continuously record and transmit operational and diagnostic data to the company’s servers. The data from Harcourt’s Model X showed its motor was actually not turned off, and that soon after Harcourt’s toddler entered the SUV through the open back door and crawled into the driver’s seat, he first pressed the brake pedal then shifted the gear selector to Drive.
“Over the next 6 seconds, the vehicle continued to be in Drive gear with the brake pedal pressed until the accelerator pedal was pressed and the brake pedal was released,” Tesla stated. “In the next 4 seconds, while varying manual pressure continued to be applied to the accelerator pedal, the vehicle speed increase was consistent with the pressure applied to the accelerator pedal. Then, the brake pedal was pressed including activation of the Anti-Lock Braking System, the accelerator pedal was released, and the vehicle came to a stop.”
“We regret that this incident happened,” Tesla continued, “however, we have not found any other instance of this sequence of events occurring — an unsupervised child manages to successfully shift the vehicle into gear and then apply the accelerator pedal — and we do not believe it is reasonably foreseeable.”
Harcourt maintains it was far too easy for her young son to drive the Tesla, which she’d owned for just three days when the accident occurred. “My toddler learned how to start and operate the Tesla faster than an adult can open a childproof bottle,” she said. “We could have died; the public needs to know.”
Harcourt’s husband, Dr. Adam Harcourt, owns and operates the Imagine X Functional Neurology clinic on Anacapa Street. The private medical practice, which specializes in treating migraines, also has a location in Beverly Hills, and it lists Mallory Harcourt on its website as executive director.
While Santa Barbara police completed a report on the incident soon after it occurred, Gokal said she’s contacting the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for further investigation.