Products Liability Law Daily Apple Inc. not liable for fatal accident caused by distracted driver
Monday, December 17, 2018

Apple Inc. not liable for fatal accident caused by distracted driver

By David Yucht, J.D.

A trial court was correct in determining that Apple Inc. was not liable for a fatal accident caused by a driver who was distracted by the FaceTime application on his iPhone, according to a California state appeals court. Apple did not owe a duty of care under these circumstances, and its manufacture of a phone without a "driver lock out" was not the proximate cause of the fatality. Consequently, the appeals court upheld the judgment of the trial court dismissing the case without leave to amend (Modisette v. Apple Inc., December 14, 2018, Danner, A.).

A family was traveling in their car on a highway in Texas when they came to a stop due to police activity. Another motorist who was using the FaceTime application on his Apple iPhone 6 Plus while driving slammed into the family’s car, killing their five-year-old child and severely injuring the three other occupants of the car. Noting studies demonstrating the addictive/compulsive nature of mobile phone use, the family claimed that Apple’s failure to design the iPhone to "lock out" drivers’ ability to use FaceTime while driving resulted in their injuries. They sued Apple Inc. in California state court, alleging, among other things, negligence, negligent and strict products liability, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted Apple’s demurrer, dismissing the complaint without leave to amend. The family appealed.

Duty of care. The appellate court agreed with the lower court that the family was unable to demonstrate that Apple breached a duty of care it owed to them, which is a necessary element in a negligence action. The appellate court noted that under California law, there is a general duty of each person to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others. However, for purposes of public policy, courts may shape this general duty to limit the otherwise potentially infinite liability which would follow from every negligent act. Although it was foreseeable that motor vehicle injuries could result from individuals using the FaceTime App while driving, and although the family was certainly injured and there was a need to prevent future harm, the connection between Apple’s conduct and the family’s injuries was too attenuated for the court to impose a duty here. Apple’s design of the iPhone simply made the use of the phone while driving possible, as does the manufacturer of any product that could foreseeably distract a driver while driving, such as "a radio or a hot cup of coffee." Also, the extent of the burden to Apple and consequences to the community of a duty if recognized with resulting liability for a breach would be too great. If established, this duty might have precluded mobile phone manufacturers from allowing the use of phones while driving, notwithstanding California law that expressly permits such uses under certain circumstances—for instance, hands-free or emergency use.

Proximate cause. Other claims in this matter did not require a finding of a duty of care, but did require that the family establish that Apple’s activity proximately caused the harm they suffered. The appellate court agreed with the lower court that proximate cause was not demonstrated. Although the family’s complaint pleaded facts sufficient to establish that Apple’s design of the iPhone 6 Plus without lockout technology was a cause in fact of their injuries because it was "a necessary antecedent" of the accident, various considerations of policy limited Apple’s responsibility for the consequences of its conduct. As a matter of necessity, legal responsibility is limited to causes which are so close to the result, or of such significance, that the law is justified in holding someone liable. Apple’s failure to configure the iPhone to automatically disable did nothing more than create the condition that made the tragedy possible. Because the circumstances here were not such that a reasonable jury would identify Apple as being actually responsible for the ultimate harm to the family, Apple’s conduct was too remotely connected to the harm to constitute proximate cause. Accordingly, the trial court appropriately dismissed claims based on negligence.

Dismissal without leave. Finding that there was no reasonable possibility that the family could correct the deficiencies in their complaint by amendment, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision to deny leave to amend. The family argued that Apple’s recent implementation of its "Do Not Disturb While Driving" technology on iPhones further established causation between the harm they suffered, Apple’s conduct, and the alleged defects in the iPhone 6 Plus. However, the appellate court noted that this newer technology had already been mentioned in the family’s prior complaint, and its implementation did not make the connection between Apple’s conduct and the harm suffered by the family less remote. Moreover, it did not ease the policy concerns expressed by the court.

The case is No. H044811.

Attorneys: Bethany Modisette (Bethany Modisette, Attorney at Law) for Bethany Modisette. Christopher Chorba (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP) for Apple Inc.

Companies: Apple Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews ElectronicProductsNews CausationNews CaliforniaNews

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