Tesla CEO Elon Musk opened up about the death of his firstborn son in an email exchange that was recently made public with the parent of a driver who died in a Tesla crash.
“There is nothing worse than losing a child,” Musk wrote in an email to James Riley dated May 10, 2018.
In 2018, Riley’s 18-year-old son Barrett Riley died in a fiery crash when he lost control of a Tesla Model S going about 116 miles per hour and crashed into a concrete wall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The series of emails was first reported by Bloomberg and is included in a Broward County Court filing that was submitted in December in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Edgar Monserratt, the front seat passenger who died in the crash. The lawyer in the case is trying to persuade a judge to order Musk to submit to questioning about Tesla’s Autopilot assisted-driving feature.
In the thread of emails that spans over six weeks in 2018, Musk expresses his condolences for the incident and offers to provide the family with data from the crash, as well as speak to the family personally over the phone. Musk even brings up his own loss — the death of his 10-week-old son Nevada Alexander Musk.
“I understand,” Musk wrote to Riley, regarding the parents concerns for teenage Tesla drivers. “My firstborn son died in my arms. I felt his heartbeat.”
Musk’s son died in 2002. When Musk and his wife at the time, Justine Wilson, went to wake up the infant they found he was not breathing, according to a biography on Musk that was written by former New York Times reporter Ashlee Vance. The child spent three days on life support, the biography said.
Musk told Riley he was “deeply saddened” when he learned of the car accident.
“Tesla is doing everything we can to improve safety,” Musk wrote. “My family, friends, and I drive Teslas, and even if they didn’t, I would still do everything I could.”
The Monserratt family, as well as Riley’s family, are each suing Tesla. In the Monserratt lawsuit, the complaint alleges Tesla “negligently” allowed Barrett Riley to disable a speed limiter that was implemented by his parents, as well as “failed to warn of defects in the Model S.” Riley filed a product liability suit against Tesla in a Florida federal court in 2020 claiming the Tesla’s batteries “burst into an uncontrollable and fatal fire” after the crash, and the teenagers were “killed by the battery fire, not by the accident.”
In the series of emails, Musk offers to tweak the feature that allows parents to govern their Tesla’s speed, as well as “acknowledge” Barrett’s death in the update.
In June 2018, Tesla sent out a software update to its speed limit feature that let drivers set the maximum speed between 50 mph and 90 mph through the car’s app using a passcode. The feature was dedicated to Barrett Riley in the owner’s manual.
Riley’s case is set to go to trial this year. In its response to both suits, Tesla denied that its battery was defective and said Barrett had “authority to approve service/repairs on the vehicle.”