Buying A Crashed Tesla Model S: Damage, Risk, Safety, Salvage, And Reporting

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Peter Rutman, who bought a wrecked Tesla Model S salvage car  [frame from San Diego 6 The CW]

Peter Rutman, who bought a wrecked Tesla Model S salvage car [frame from San Diego 6 The CW]

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Caveat emptor. Or, for those less conversant in Latin, buyer beware.

That's the lesson that should always be applied when buying a used car. Especially one with obvious damage.

Especially a used electric car that's been so badly damaged that it's been declared a total writeoff by an insurance company, meaning that it's now designated a "salvage vehicle."

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Nonetheless, Peter Rutman of San Diego paid $50,000 for a wrecked 2012 Tesla Model S Signature Series--one of the first 1,000 all-electric luxury cars built--at a salvage auction last March.

He then paid a further $8,000 to have it repaired--not at a designated Tesla Service Center, but rather by a third-party repair shop.

2014 Tesla Model S

2014 Tesla Model S

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Then he contacted Tesla to have the car reactivated electronically. That's when he learned that Tesla wanted one of its own service centers to inspect the car to ensure it was roadworthy and safe.

The company wanted him to sign a liability release form that authorizes the company to inspect the car--and gives Tesla the final word on whether the repaired Model S is actually safe and roadworthy.

Rutman refused to sign that form, and several months of further communications with Tesla followed.

Last week Rutman apparently went to a local San Diego television station, claiming that he had been unfairly treated.

In its initial version, the resulting story--entitled "$58,000 Nightmare With Tesla Model S"--had no input from Tesla, although its latest version now carries the company's statement on the matter (below).

Tesla Model S lithium-ion battery pack in rolling chassis [photo: Martin Gillet via Flickr]

Tesla Model S lithium-ion battery pack in rolling chassis [photo: Martin Gillet via Flickr]

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Simon Sproule, Tesla's vice president of communications, sent Green Car Reports and the San Diego station the following statement:

Safety is Tesla’s top priority and it is a principle on which we refuse to compromise under any circumstance. Mr. Rutman purchased a vehicle on the salvage market that had been substantially damaged in a serious accident.

We have strong concerns about this car being safe for the road, but we have been prevented from inspecting the vehicle because Mr. Rutman refused to sign an inspection authorization form. That form clearly states that in order for us to support the vehicle on an ongoing basis, we need to ensure the repairs meet minimum safety standards.

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Regardless of whether or not the car passed inspection, Mr. Rutman would have been free to decide where to conduct any additional repairs and to leave with his vehicle. There was never any threat to take away his vehicle at the inspection or any time thereafter and there is nothing in the authorization form that states or implies that we would do so.

Additionally, Mr. Rutman opted to have his vehicle repaired by a non-Tesla affiliated facility. We work with a network of authorized independent repair facilities to ensure our safety standards are met. It is also worth noting that Mr. Rutman is not on any “blacklist” for purchasing Tesla parts. 

2014 Tesla Model S

2014 Tesla Model S

Enlarge Photo

While we do sell certain parts over the counter, we do not sell any parts that require specific training to install. This is a policy that is common among automakers and it is in place to protect customers from the risk of repairs not meeting our safety standards.

Perhaps the most telling sentence from the San Diego news story is this: "Rutman says he never would have purchased the car if he knew about Tesla's terms in advance."

He's now challenging the insurance company from which he bought the wrecked Tesla, saying that the salvage title incorrectly implied it was repairable. No luck there so far.

His last words indicate that Rutman may have learned a sad life lesson: "I want my money back."

Caveat emptor.

[hat tip: Steven Maifert]

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