Lawsuit Blames Tesla Pop-Out Door Handles for Fatally Trapping Driver in Fiery Crash

The Model S features disappearing door handles that are meant to deploy in the case of an emergency. The suit alleges that they didn't.

Tesla

In February, a Tesla Model S driver in Florida was killed as he was unable to escape his car which caught fire after crashing into several trees. Now, a lawsuit is blaming 48-year-old Omar Awan's death on the electric luxury car's pop-out door handles. 

According to Automotive News, the lawsuit claims that first responders were unable to pull Awan from the burning Tesla because its door handles—which sit flush with the car's body but should "auto-present" when the key fob is detected—didn't do so as designed. This is backed up by witnesses on the scene who not only reported the same thing but added that the vehicle's airbags didn't deflate after deploying, further trapping Awan and blocking anyone from reaching into the interior door handle, which is Tesla's workaround for malfunctioning exterior door handles.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed in Broward County's state court on Oct. 10 reads, "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." The lawsuit also notes that Awan died of smoke inhalation and sustained no internal injuries or broken bones.

Door handles that refuse to pop out are apparently one of the most common faults experienced by Model S drivers. The Drive's own Jonathon Klein knows this all too well after he and his wife were inexplicably locked out of a P90D Model S back in 2016, harrowingly leaving them stranded atop a chilly Mount Wilson for five hours with limited cell service.

At this point, you're probably thinking door handles that sit flush with the rest of the car and futuristically present themselves when approached, while cool, aren't really worth the technical complexity and safety risks. Well, many Tesla execs probably thought so too but according to a Wired profile on the company and its founder Elon Musk published late last year, the insistence to implement the handles came from none other than Tesla's eccentric head honcho. 

Many Tesla executives have stories about how Musk reset their concept of the possible, but the classic tale is about retractable door handles. In the mid-2000s, the company was designing the luxury Model S when Musk insisted the car needed handles that would lie flush against its body. They would glide out, as if by magic, just as the owner reached the vehicle, by responding to a signal from an electronic key. "It was unanimous among the executive staff that the complex door handle idea was crazy," said a former executive. It 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. Even once the car was released, the handles sometimes proved troublesome. When Consumer Reports wanted to review a Model S in 2015, it had to postpone the analysis because "the fancy retractable door handles refused to let us in."

"Crazy" door handles aren't the only door-related Tesla innovation to have created safety concerns. Back in 2017, a Chinese Model X owner asked Tesla for $1.1 million worth of reparations after her electric crossover's falcon doors refused to open after a crash-induced fire. 

We've reached out to Tesla for comment on the situation and will update this story when we hear back.