According to the accident report compiled by the California Highway Patrol, 63-year-old driver Navindra Kumar Jain fell asleep at the wheel while driving northbound on Highway 1 in Santa Cruz, crossed into the oncoming, southbound lane, crested a small hill and then while doing 55 miles per hour hit a southbound cyclist who was riding on the shoulder. The cyclist, Joshua Alper, died at the scene. Jain was driving a Tesla Model S he had bought ten days earlier and said that the intense new-car smell – which he attempted to counter with a baking-soda scented air freshener – caused him to fall asleep.
The accident happened in November, and after a three-month investigation the Santa Cruz district attorney has decided to charge Jain with “misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.” As you could guess, there are still plenty of unresolved issues. Jain has said he “fell asleep” and there was nothing mechanically wrong with the car he had bought ten days before the incident. His attorney, however, says “he passed out while driving and still does not know what caused the accident,” and that the Tesla “and all its component parts” must be thoroughly tested. The CHP tore the Tesla apart, standard practice in manslaughter cases, and, not having found anything amiss, declared the driver at fault. Observers, and especially cyclists, want to know why Jain was only charged with a misdemeanor, and why he hasn’t yet been arrested. Some might ask why he didn’t just roll down a window.
It will take the courts to decide – that’s “courts,” plural. In addition to the criminal case, Alper’s family is suing Jain and Tesla, appearing to cover its bases with the new-car-smell defense by accusing the Model S of being “defective and unreasonably dangerous when used in a normal, intended and foreseeable manner.” That seems like a stretch, but it’s not like bizarre defenses haven’t ever swayed a sentencing before. No matter the verdict in the criminal or civil cases, though, with Joshua Alper gone, nobody wins.