Investor's Corner

Tesla under scrutiny by the SEC for failing to disclose fatal crash

Tesla Model X charging under a solar canopy at the Barstow, CA Supercharger

Last week’s full blown spat between renown publication Fortune and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who hotly denied that the information about the death of Model S owner Joshua Brown on May 7 was in any way material to the company’s $2 billion stock sale, has reportedly prompted the SEC to investigate.

A person familiar with the matter says the inquiry is in a very early stage and may not lead to any enforcement action by regulators. “Tesla has not received any communication from the SEC regarding this issue,” a Tesla spokeswoman said. “Our blog post last week provided the relevant information about this issue.

“The damage sustained by the Model S in the crash limited Tesla’s ability to recover data from it remotely,” a company spokesman said according to a report published by the Wall Street Journal. “During the last week of May, Tesla was able to finish its review of the logs and complete its investigation. The financing round had already taken place by that time.”

Tesla has said in previous securities filings that a successful liability claim associated with its technology, including the Autopilot feature, could harm the company’s financial condition. In its most recent quarterly report, the company said such a claim “could generate substantial negative publicity about our products and business and would have material adverse effect on our brand, business, prospects and operating results.” Tesla says the report contained “boilerplate language” that was “stating the obvious” and “had no bearing” on the fatal crash that took the life of Brown.

Experts in securities law say there is no clearly defined standard for whether the May 7 accident was “material” enough to require disclosure by the company. Adam Pritchard, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former SEC attorney, said he is “very skeptical” a court would find Tesla’s failure to disclose information about the fatal crash to be a breach of the law. He agreed with Musk that the fact Tesla’s stock price regained its value later the same day is “fairly persuasive evidence that it was not material.” He added, “This is development stage technology. There are going to be wrinkles along the way.”

Erik Gerding, a law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said he believes the disclosure issue presented a “tough judgment call” for Tesla executives. “The conservative approach is just to disclose it,” he said, adding that the information could be material if it engenders skepticism about Tesla cars.

The Wall Street Journal indicates that vehicle manufacturers usually don’t disclose traffic fatalities involving their products to investors. With over 35,000 deaths in motor vehicle accidents in America every year, that would amount to over 100 disclosures a day. The difference, of course, is that this matter involves Tesla Motors and new technology. The WSJ says, “Investors have flocked to Tesla shares in part amid conviction the company is on the technological cutting edge and poised to leap ahead of more traditional auto makers.”

Even if that is true, no one has ever suggested that Autopilot would eliminate fatalities completely. Any investor who buys shares in Tesla thinking no deaths or injuries will ever occur is foolish. The fact that the SEC has begun an investigation is news, but the likelihood that any violation of securities law will be found is remote.

The unfortunate accident in which Brown was killed was the first death while Autopilot was in use and it will not be the last. Should Tesla notify the investment community every time a person is injured or killed in a Tesla automobile? The suggestion seems absurd on its face.

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