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Tesla sued after employee killed in Colorado crash

A lawsuit was filed in Clear Creek County earlier this month on behalf of the widow of a Tesla employee who blames one of the company's cars for her husband's death in a fiery crash in Evergreen.

The case's outcome, should it go to court, would appear to hinge on whether the widow's attorneys are able to prove the Tesla's self-driving feature was engaged and fully operational.

Hans von Ohain and his wife, Nora Bass, in an undated photo provided by Bass's legal team. MLG Attorneys at Law

Hans Christopher von Ohain was 33 years old when he died the night of May 16, 2022. He was driving a 2021 Tesla Model 3 when the car veered off the right shoulder of Upper Bear Creek Road and struck a tree head-on. The car caught fire.

Von Ohain's passenger, a friend and neighbor. Erik Rossiter, told investigators he was able to cut away his own seat belt to get out of the car. Rossiter suffered burns to his arms while trying to get von Ohain out of the driver's seat, but he was unable to. Rossiter later described to investigators how he desperately yelled for someone to call 9-1-1 as von Ohain regained consciousness and screamed.  

Von Ohain's remains needed to be cut from the burned wreckage after the fire was extinguished, according to an accident report.

Hans von Ohain, his wife, Nora Bass, and their daughter in an undated photo from von Ohain's obituary.  Newcomer Cremations, Funerals & Receptions

The accident occurred less than a mile from their homes. Von Ohain, a Marine Reservist, was on paternity leave at the time of the crash.  

Two years later, the wrongful death lawsuit claims von Ohain's daughter will never know her father due to Tesla's negligence. 

The wreckage of Hans von Ohain's Tesla after he and a passenger crashed near Evergreen on May 16, 2022.  MLG Attorneys at Law

A case document states Tesla is at fault for a design and manufacturing defect, failure to warn consumers of a dangerous product, and failure to recall a dangerous product. 

In his interview with investigators after the crash, Rossiter could not definitively say whether the Tesla Model 3's self-driving feature was engaged. But he was certain that von Ohain had used it earlier that afternoon when they drove from their neighborhood to a golf course. 

Rossiter described to Colorado State Patrol investigators at least one instance when the car almost ran off the shoulder of the road, but responded quickly when it encountered the painted shoulder line and sharply turned back into the center of the lane of traffic. Rossiter was told by Von Hain that the car did this repeatedly while in self-driving mode. 

Rossiter also told investigators that he and von Ohain drank alcohol during their golf outing. Von Ohain's post-mortem blood-alcohol content was measured at .246, three times the legal limit. Rossiter could not recall whether von Ohain grabbed the car's steering wheel or made any effort to take control of the car from its automated system in the seconds before they struck the tree, per CSP's investigation report. 

MLG Attorneys at Law

One trooper's narrative in that report states the Evergreen Fire Department needed to flip the car on its roof to remove the lithium batteries from the car after the fire was initially extinguished, but the batteries kept "erupting in flames." 

The CSP report included copies of the Model 3's owner's manual. One section of the manual named a specific a fuse which deactivates the battery's voltage system when the airbags are deployed. However, a section of the manual dedicated to emergency situations told first responders to expect the car's electrical system to maintain some level of charge even when disconnected from the batteries. 

MLG Attorneys at Law

Tesla has yet to return a message from CBS News Colorado requesting comment on the crash and lawsuit. But the company boasts publicly of its cars' safety records. 

"The Model S, Model 3, Model X and Model Y have achieved among the lowest overall probability of injury of any vehicles ever tested by the U.S. government's New Car Assessment Program," Tesla states on its website. The Model 3, in fact, "achieves the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle ever tested"  by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration since the NHTSA began assigning Vehicle Safety Scores in 2011.

Nevertheless, the NHTSA analyzed information from 211 crashes in which the front of a Tesla struck a vehicle or obstacle in its path. The agency released its report in early April. In it, drivers' actions - and inactions - were recorded by the vehicle in 135 of those crashes.

"Drivers either did not brake or braked less than one second prior to the crash in 82 percent of the incidents, and either did not steer or steered less than one second prior to impact in 78 percent of the incidents," the report states.

The findings suggest Tesla's self-driving feature functions adequately in most situations, though not well enough to avoid all crashes. Nor well enough to allow drivers to completely leave the driving up to the car.   

Two crashes in particular were cited. One, a fatal crash that occurred in July 2023 in Warrenton, Virginia involving a 2023 Tesla Model Y. The Tesla was traveling at highway speed on a rural highway with cross traffic and struck the side of a turning tractor-trailer crossing its path, as described in the report. 

"Based on available information, the tractor-trailer would have been visible to an attentive driver with sufficient time to avoid the crash," the report states.

The second crash occurred in March 2023 in North Carolina and involved a 2022 Model Y. That Tesla was traveling at highway speed when it struck a student exiting a school bus. The student was seriously injured.

"Based on publicly available information," the NHTSA report concludes, "both the bus and the pedestrian would have been visible to an attentive driver and allowed the driver to avoid or minimize the severity of this crash."

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While the NHTSA was conducting this investigation, Tesla initiated a recall in December 2023 of any its vehicles equipped with its Autopilot system. A CBS News report states the recall affects almost all Teslas that have been sold.

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A website devoted to Tesla crash statistics states there have been 44 deaths worldwide while the vehicles' self-driving systems were being used. 


Von Ohain was a recruiter for Tesla. He and his family moved to Colorado in 2018. Nora Bass now lives with her daughter in California.

The first hearing in Clear Creek County court is June 6.  

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