SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – An attorney for a South Korean celebrity, who claims Tesla defamed him by saying he was at fault when his Model X spontaneously accelerated and crashed into his Southern California home, told a federal judge Monday the car company should have foreseen the damage the defamatory statement caused.
Ji Chang Son, a popular singer and movie star, said in his class action that his 2016 Model X experienced sudden unintended acceleration, or SUA, while he was slowly parking in his garage. The sudden acceleration caused the luxury sports SUV to crash through the garage wall and into Son’s living room.
Son and his son, who was his passenger, suffered cuts to their legs as they crawled out of the vehicle’s windows to escape while smoke and debris filled the living room.
The Palo Alto, California-based Tesla said in a December 2016 statement regarding Son’s lawsuit that Son was scheming to blackmail the company and that its investigation proved he was at fault in the crash.
“Before filing his class action lawsuit against Tesla, Mr. Son had threatened to use his celebrity status in Korea to hurt Tesla unless we agreed to make a financial payment and acknowledge that the vehicle accelerated on its own,” the statement said. “Our policy is to stand by the evidence and not to give in to ultimatums.”
Son added defamation claims against Tesla, saying its statement caused him to lose business by claiming he was at fault for the crash and accusing him of accepting money from other car manufacturers to file the lawsuit.
“As a result of Tesla’s media play which is still being circulated on the internet, plaintiff Son was portrayed as a greedy liar to the general public and has lost millions of dollar worth of business which he had prior to this incident,” Son’s complaint says.
The company responded in court papers that Son’s complaint should be tossed because his slander and defamation claims fall outside the one-year statute of limitations and that, under California’s so-called “single publication rule,” only one defamation lawsuit can be filed per statement no matter how many copies are distributed.
Son’s attorney Jake Jung said at a hearing Monday that the rule should not apply since Tesla’s press release about Son’s lawsuit was reposted on multiple websites and included in articles that featured updated statements by Tesla officials.
But U.S District Judge James V. Selna disagreed, tentatively dismissing Son’s slander and defamation claims and saying in an 11-page tentative ruling issued Monday that Son failed to list which websites reposted Tesla’s press release.
“The republication exception requires that a new party republish the allegedly defamatory statements and that such republication was reasonably foreseeable by Tesla,” Selna wrote. “Absent such allegations, the complaint is deficient.”
Selna added Son filed his lawsuit more than a year after Tesla circulated the press release, making his claims untimely “unless an exception to the statute of limitations apples.”
The judge also tentatively dismissed Son’s false advertising and breach of warranty claims, finding Tesla’s statements about its braking and collision warning features simply stated the designs were meant to improve safety, not that it would prevent Son’s sudden acceleration incident.
Son was granted 15 days leave to amend his complaint.
Attorneys for both parties declined to comment outside the courtroom after the hearing.
Thirteen owners of the luxury SUV – which can reach a top speed of 155 miles per hour and has an autopilot feature – registered complaints about sudden unintended acceleration with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within a year of the first car being sold, according to Son’s lawsuit.
When Tesla was made aware of the complaints, the company responded by blaming driver error for the incidents and saying the Model X’s autopilot feature operated correctly, Son said in his lawsuit.