Back in 2014, the owner of a brand new Tesla claimed his Model S spontaneously caught fire and Tesla offered him compensation. Tesla went back on the deal when they discovered that the fire was caused, not by a faulty battery, but by a bullet.
The story started when the proud new owner of a Model S, John Schneider, was driving away from the dealership. According to court documents obtained by Electrek, “smoke and flames began to emit from the rear seat of the vehicle in the vicinity of the vehicles rear battery cells. Schneider immediately stopped and exited the vehicle and watched as the rear passenger seat continued to burn.”
At that point in time, Tesla was on high alert on the matter of fire and batteries since there had been some highly publicised cases of Tesla vehicles catching on fire. Tesla took possession of the totalled vehicle, and seemed to find that the Tesla was “throwing some faults with the battery.” Five days later, the dealership offered Schneider a replacement in return for a signed document to keep quiet about the incident – which Schneider then happily signed.
Then things got weird. Some 21 days later, after Tesla had finally completed its investigation into the cause of the fire, they claimed that the battery pack had caught fire because “a bullet was fired into the battery from inside the vehicle’s passenger cabin.” That’s when Tesla sent Schneider a letter rescinding the deal because the “thermal event” was caused by the bullet and that this “material fact was not conveyed to Tesla, and Tesla relied upon the information you provided which omitted this material information.” All deals were off, but Schneider was not having a bar of it. Hence the court case.
Upon reading the court documents, it becomes clear that Tesla made the mistake of trying to protect their brand name before they had even looked into the problem. It was only 21 days after having possession of the vehicle that Tesla apparently found the cause of the fire – but stupidly they hadn’t made their deal with Schneider in any way dependent on the actual cause of the fire. Schneider says he stuck to his part of the deal (though it was clear Tesla no longer wanted any part of it), which meant that he didn’t make an insurance claim, which is what Tesla had made him promise in the hasty deal. Whether Schneider could have claimed the vehicle as insurance write-off after a gunfight, or accident – the mind boggles – is another question altogether.
According to Electrek, statistical evidence shows that EVs are no more likely to catch fire than any other vehicle. However, it seems that vehicle makers should think twice about keeping customers quiet about a “thermal incident” before finding out what actually caused it.