Talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving. Texting while driving. Both of these activities are major causes of accidents that have now been banned in most states. However, with the development of technology, a new problematic activity has emerged: engaging in FaceTime while driving. FaceTime is Apple’s video-chatting program, and it is a standard part of the latest versions of the iPhone. Not only does the program require hand interaction in the form of holding the device and interacting with the device’s interface to commence and end a FaceTime session, but it also requires visual attention because of the video aspect of the program. Since using FaceTime requires a person to both continuously look at the device and hold/physically interact with the device, using FaceTime while driving is arguably more dangerous than texting while driving and talking on a hand-held cell phone. However, using Facetime while driving is currently not a crime in any state, nor has Apple, the company behind FaceTime, taken any steps to discourage users from using it while driving. That may all change soon now that a family in Texas is suing Apple over a car accident that was caused by a driving using FaceTime.
On Christmas Eve of 2014, Garrett Wilhelm crashed into the Modisette family’s car while engaged in a conversation using FaceTime on his iPhone 6 Plus rather than paying attention to traffic. All four members of the Modisette family suffered from serious injuries, and one for the two young daughters ended up dying from her injuries. At the scene of the accident, Mr. Wilhelm admitted to the police that he was using FaceTime when he crashed into the Modisette family’s car and the police noticed that FaceTime was still running on Mr. Wilhelm’s iPhone 6 Plus after the accident, which suggests that the use of FaceTime helped cause the accident.
Holding Apple Responsible for FaceTime’s Role
The Modisettes filed a lawsuit against Apple for the role that FaceTime played in causing the accident. They have accused Apple of being negligent in the design of FaceTime by failing to include either a warning to users alerting them to the dangers of using FaceTime while driving or a mechanism that would allow for FaceTime to become disabled when the device containing FaceTime is in a moving vehicle. What makes Apple’s failure to include either a warning or disabling mechanism even more noticeable is the fact that prior to the release of the iPhone 6 Plus, Apple was granted a patent for a electronic device mechanism that would disable certain distracting features within the electronic device, such as texting and video chatting, if the mechanism sensed that the device was traveling at or beyond a certain speed that would indicate that the device was in a vehicle.
How Can Manufacturers Be Held Responsible?
Manufacturers owe a duty to consumers to create safe products. If a product can be made safer without sacrificing any of its essential aspects, then the manufacturer is obligated to change the way that it makes the product to include the new additional safety measures. If a manufacturer keeps making the product in the same manner as before without implementing the changes to make it safer, then the manufacturer has used a defective design and is liable for any harm that may result from the product with the defective design when that product is being used in a way that is either intended by the manufacturer or reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer.
Apple knew that iPhone owners used their iPhones while driving, including for texting and chatting purposes. In fact, that knowledge is why Apple created the mechanism for which they sought the patent, according to the background information in the company’s patent application. Since the patent application was granted in April 2014 and the iPhone 6 Plus was initially released in September 2014, Apple was in possession of a patent for a mechanism that would have disabled iPhone owners from being able to use their iPhones in a distracting manner while driving months before Mr. Wilhelm could have purchased his iPhone 6 Plus. Thus, not only was Apple aware of the current dangerous design of the iPhone in lacking a mechanism to disable certain features of the iPhone while the owner is driving, it was also aware of a way to make the iPhone with a mechanism that would disable certain features in the iPhone while the owner is driving. Despite this knowledge, Apple did not implement the safer design that would have included the mechanism when manufacturing the iPhone 6 Plus. Thus, Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus contained a design defect for which Apple is liable.
But Can Apple Really Be Liable for a Car Accident?
Since Apple is liable for the defective design of the iPhone 6 Plus, they are then liable for any harm that may result from a reasonably foreseeable use of the iPhone 6 Plus that may have been avoided if the safer design was implemented. Apple should have reasonably foreseen that Mr. Wilhelm would have been using FaceTime on his iPhone 6 Plus while driving because the company stated its awareness of drivers using cell phones while driving in the patent application. Mr. Wilhelm would likely have been unable to use FaceTime on his iPhone 6 Plus if Apple had manufactured the device with the disabling mechanism. However, since that safety mechanism was not present in Mr. Wilhelm’s iPhone 6 Plus, Mr. Wilhelm engaged in distracted driving and crashed into the Modisettes’ car. Thus, it is likely that Apple is liable for Mr. Wilhelm crashing into the Modisette’s car and the subsequent damage that resulted from the crash.
If the court does find Apple liable for the car crash involving Mr. Wilhelm and the Modisettes, then the court will likely require Apple to provide financial compensation to the Modisette family and order Apple begin implementing the safer design featuring the disabling mechanism. The compensation that the Modisettes may receive from Apple will likely include quantifiable damages such as incurred medical costs and the cost of repairing or replacing their car, as well as more speculative damages such as money for the loss of companionship due to the daughter’s death and pain and suffering. Additionally, Apple may be required to pay punitive damages, which are damages designed to punish defendants for terrible behavior, because Apple was already in possession of a patented way to make the iPhone 6 Plus safer before it was manufactured and yet chose to still manufacture the iPhone 6 Plus with the less safe design.
What Can Consumers Do to Protect Themselves?
Manufacturers should always make their products as safe as is feasible. If they fail to make products that are safe to be used as is foreseeable, then they should be held liable for causing harm to consumers. You should contact a defective products lawyer if you have been harmed by a defective product. A lawyer can assist you in talking to the maker of the defective product about compensating you for your injuries and filing a lawsuit if necessary.