Teen Tesla driver killed by fire not crash, says dad’s lawsuit against car company

Fort Lauderdale — The father of an 18-year-old Tesla driver who died in a fiery crash in Fort Lauderdale has filed a lawsuit against the California car manufacturer, faulting the batteries used by the company.

“Barrett Riley was killed by the battery fire, not by the accident,” the 16-page lawsuit says.


The May 8, 2018 crash was “entirely survivable,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit’s claim reflects the Broward County medical examiner’s finding that Riley died of injuries from the fire. His front-seat passenger also died. A back-seat passenger was thrown from the car and survived.


Driving his father’s Tesla, Riley traveled at 116 mph, lost control on a curve and careened into a concrete wall on Seabreeze Boulevard.

The 2014 Model S sedan exploded into a ball of fire.

An undated photo of  Barrett Riley,  the driver of the Tesla that crashed in Fort Lauderdale. His Aunt says the car had been altered so it couldn't speed past 85 mph. Carline Jean/Staff Photographer

Riley and a fellow senior at Pine Crest High School died on the scene.

The company’s defectively designed lithium-ion batteries caused the Tesla to “burst into an uncontrollable and fatal fire” upon impact, the suit says.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 8, 2019 in the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara County. Tesla’s headquarters is in Palo Alto, Calif.

Riley’s father, James B. Riley, filed the suit on behalf of his son’s estate. It demands a jury trial and seeks damages on two claims of negligence and one claim of strict liability.

It raises a claim similar to one in a wrongful death lawsuit filed nearly a year ago on behalf of Riley’s front-seat passenger, Edgar Monserratt Martinez, 18, of Aventura.

The crash could have been avoided, both suits allege, if a worker at a local Tesla service center had not removed a device that limited the electric car’s top speed at 85 mph.


Riley’s parents had it installed after their son got a speeding ticket.

But unbeknown to the Rileys, the lawsuit says, a Tesla worker negligently disabled the device when the car was taken in for maintenance about a month before the fatal crash.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

But in an emailed statement earlier this year, a Tesla spokeswoman said “unfortunately, no car could have withstood a high-speed crash of this kind."

“Our thoughts continue to be with the families affected by this tragedy,” she said.

Tesla in 2018 introduced a speed-limiting feature “in dedication to our customer’s son, Barrett Riley, who tragically passed away in the accident,” the spokeswoman said in January.