By Susan Lasser, J.D.
Fifth Circuit’s decision finding that an automobile driver’s neurobiological response to a smartphone notification could not be the legal cause of an automobile accident stands.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a petition by the representatives of the estates of two adults killed in a distracted driving-related accident and by the guardian of a minor child permanently injured in the automobile accident. The petitioners sought review of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that an automobile driver’s neurobiological response to a smartphone notification could not be a cause in fact of the fatal car crash [see Products Liability Law Daily’s December 19, 2018 analysis]. The appellate panel for the Fifth Circuit was "dutybound" to decide the disputed issue of causation by applying Texas law or by predicting how Texas courts would rule on the issue, the petition for certiorari asserted, taking issue with the panel’s refusal to make a determination of how the state would rule on such a claim and arguing that the panel’s failure to do so denied them of their due process of law. According to the petitioners, given the lack of Texas state court precedent on the issue of causation, the federal court in a product liability/negligence suit against the device maker should have made an "Erie guess" (Meador v. Apple, Inc., Docket No. 18-1314, filed April 11, 2018; cert. denied May 28, 2019).
A woman was driving her pick-up truck when she received a text message on her iPhone 5, manufactured by Apple, Inc. In the moment she took to look down to read the text on her cell phone and then return her attention to the road, it was too late to avoid colliding with a vehicle carrying two adults and a child. The adults died, and the child survived but was rendered a paraplegic. The driver was convicted on two counts of criminally negligent homicide.
The representatives of the accident victims sued Apple in federal court, alleging claims for general negligence and strict products liability under Texas common law. Asserting that the accident was caused by Apple’s failure to implement a patent it had secured on lock-out mechanisms for driver hand-held computing devices and by the company’s failure to warn iPhone 5 users about the risks of distracted driving, the representatives alleged that receipt of a text message triggers in the recipient "an unconscious and automatic, neurobiological compulsion to engage in texting behavior." The trial court dismissed the complaint with prejudice and the representatives appealed.
Fifth Circuit ruling. The appellate court found Texas substantive law was applicable in the case. The appellants had argued that the smartphone device and the driver’s negligence were concurrent causes of the accident. The Fifth Circuit panel, however, noted that it first had to determine whether Texas law would recognize a smartphone’s effect on its user as a cause of the accident. The panel, finding no Texas case had yet addressed whether a smartphone manufacturer should be liable for a user’s torts because the neurobiological response induced by the phone was a substantial factor in the user’s tortious acts, remarked that no federal court has made such a holding and that numerous courts have declined to do so. Consequently, the panel concluded that no authority indicated that Texas courts would recognize a person’s induced responses to her smartphone as a substantial factor in her tortious acts and, therefore, would hold the phone’s manufacturer responsible for those acts. Accepting the appellants’ theory of causation would work a "substantial innovation" in Texas law, according to the appeals court. Thus, because the panel declined to consider "neurobiological compulsion" a substantial factor under Texas law, it concluded that the driver’s iPhone 5 could not be a cause in fact of the injuries in the case. Accordingly, the panel affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the representatives’ claims.
Questions presented. Taking issue with the appeals court’s rationale, the petition had presented two questions for U.S. Supreme Court review: (1) whether the court of appeals failed to exercise its mandatory diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1332 by refusing to make an "Erie guess" whether Texas courts would hold a smartphone manufacturer liable for the injuries and deaths which ensued after a driver, distracted by her smartphone, collided with another vehicle, especially when Texas law provides a reasonably clear template for making that prediction; and (2) whether the petitioners were denied due process of law or their right of access to the courts when, after refusing to make an "Erie guess" about whether Texas law would hold the respondent liable for its role in causing this accident, the court of appeals refused sua sponte to certify this question to the Texas Supreme Court and then denied the petitioners’ motion to do so.
The case is Docket No. 18-1314.
Attorneys: Gregory P. Love (Love Law Firm) for Kimberly Meador. Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP) for Apple, Inc.
Companies: Apple, Inc.
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