Tesla safety at center of South Korean lawsuit over fiery, deadly crash

SEOUL, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Two years ago, a white Tesla Model X crashed into a parking lot wall in an upscale neighborhood in Seoul. A well-known lawyer – a close friend of the South Korean president was killed in a fiery accident.

Prosecutors charged the driver with manslaughter. He blames Tesla.

Choi Woan-jong, who makes a living by driving drunk people home in his car, says the Model X went out of control at high speed on its own and the brakes failed in the December 2020 crash.

The pending criminal case in South Korea centers on questions about the safety of Tesla vehicles, while the EV maker faces a series of lawsuits and scrutiny from regulators.

Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as a freelance driver, or what is known in Korea as a “substitute driver.”

He says he’s having flashbacks and depression before his trial with the world’s most valuable carmaker, which has lost confidence.

“When I wake up, I feel abandoned, floating alone in the middle of the ocean,” said Choi, who underwent surgery for a herniated bowel after the accident.

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment on the accident and Choi’s case. A lawyer for the family of Yoon Hong-geun, who owned the car and died in the crash, declined to comment.

Choi’s case has caught the attention of some safety advocates in South Korea, who want to change a provision in a free trade agreement with the United States that exempts Tesla from domestic standards.

For example, Tesla is not required to comply with South Korea’s rules requiring at least one front and rear seat door to protect against mechanical failure because the US-South Korea free trade agreement exempts automakers with sales of fewer than 50,000 vehicles from local safety regulations. .

Note that Tesla sold 17,828 cars in South Korea in 2021.

Park Keun-oh, an official at South Korea’s Trade Ministry’s Korea-US FTA division, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to comply with American safety regulations that do not require a mechanical back-up lock. Such locks allow you to open the doors even if there is no electricity in the car.

Park declined to comment further. The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to requests for comment on the trade agreement or regulations.

Prosecutors say Choi hit the accelerator while pulling into the garage of a Seoul apartment building and hit 95 km/h (60 mph) before the crash. He denies this, saying that the car’s side mirrors started going in and out without command just before the car started to accelerate on its own.

“It felt like the car was being driven by a hurricane,” said Choi, who has been driving for more than 20 years and has experience driving Teslas.

The judge said at a preliminary hearing that the automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the car transmitted minutes before the crash. The defense has requested access to the information and is waiting for the court to release the information.

Choi and his lawyer are trying to show that the car’s electrical systems failed and that its design slowed firefighters’ efforts to rescue Yoon.

After the accident, Tesla’s battery caught fire. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters and video from the scene, shot by firefighters and seen by Reuters.

Choi escaped through a broken side window. Firefighters were delayed in removing Yoon from the back seat because the Model X’s electronic doors could not be opened from the outside, according to a Dec. 31, 2020 fire department report reviewed by Reuters. The news did not say how long the rescue was delayed.

Yoo, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters removed him from the vehicle and performed CPR. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Judge Park Won-gyu said he plans to call Tesla engineers to testify and the safety of Tesla cars will be tested in court. Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to five years in prison.


According to a fire department report, an investigation by the responding fire station found that a battery failure slowed the emergency response by disabling the seat controls, preventing firefighters from repositioning the front seats so they could reach Yoon.

The report said the power outage made it “impossible to secure space for the (rescue) operation”.

A representative of the fire station declined to comment.

According to the report, the Model X’s electronic exterior door handles did not open from the outside due to a dead battery. It is also reported that firefighters were unable to extricate Yoon from the car because the front seats could not be moved after the battery died.

Video of the rescue shows firefighters trying to open the Model X’s wing-style doors but failing to do so. They eventually broke the windshield and got Yoo out of the car about 25 minutes after the 911 call came in, according to footage and a firefighter report.

According to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, Tesla is the only automaker in South Korea that does not provide data from its on-board diagnostic systems to the Korea Transport Safety Authority (TSA) for safety inspections. Spurred by Choi’s accident, regulators campaigned to pressure Tesla to change door handles and work with regulators.

TS noted that Tesla is not legally required to provide such information, but all other foreign and domestic car manufacturers do.

Park and TS said Tesla is working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access their cars’ diagnostic data starting in October 2023.

“Tesla has become a great symbol of innovation, but I think (the company’s problems in Korea) are a serious concern for customers here as well,” Park said, referring to the possibility that Tesla will not open its doors after the collision. free trade agreement provisions.

South Korean consumer group Citizens for Consumer Sovereignty said in September that Tesla had failed to address what the group called “gate defects.” The group says it has collected data on about 1,870 complaints about Tesla doors over the past four years. Information provided to Reuters by another South Korean lawmaker and TS confirmed this figure.

A consumer group has asked police to investigate Tesla for failing to improve driver and passenger safety after a fatal crash in Seoul, but police said in May there was not enough evidence to proceed, according to a report seen by Reuters.

In a letter to a consumer group seen by Reuters on June 29, police said that while Tesla’s door locks may violate local safety standards, that assumption is false under the terms of the Korea-US free trade agreement.

Tesla doors “may violate (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) has no obligation to comply with local vehicle safety standards under the Korea-US free trade agreement,” the police letter said.

In cases where the cause of an accident is disputed in South Korean courts, drivers face the burden of proving a car defect, three legal and auto safety experts say, and automakers are almost never prosecuted for safety issues.

“Unless you’ve been through it, you’ll never know what it feels like,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “substitute driver” in South Korea who crashed a Tesla in May, police records show.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahn, who was one of the few to attend all of Cho’s pretrial hearings, said the Tesla he was driving also accelerated on its own and crashed into two cars in the underground garage, but no one was seriously injured. Police say the accident was his fault because there were no problems with the vehicle, but because the accident was minor, they did not charge him.

Ahn said he continues to work as an independent substitute driver but has given up driving Teslas.

Unable to work and almost broke, Choi moved into a 6.6-square-meter (71-square-foot) cabin, which he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Funded by state housing subsidies, it includes shared bathrooms and kitchens and all-you-can-eat rice. Despite these challenges, Choi is bullish on Tesla.

“Obviously, there’s a process to perfect products through trial and error. And I’m just meant to be a part of that process,” he said.

Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Edited by Kevin Krolicki and Gerry Doyle

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