Apple has been sued for not including a safety feature, patented by the company in 2014, that would discourage the use of FaceTime while driving. The couple’s five-year-old daughter died in a car accident when a driver, allegedly distracted using FaceTime, collided with their car on Christmas Eve 2014. The lawsuit has been filed in Santa Clara Superior County Court by the couple, Bethany and James Modisette, who were injured in the accident along with their two daughters, one of whom died later in the hospital.
The couple’s complaint argues that Apple should be held responsible for the accident because they had a patent for a safety feature that would have prevented the use of FaceTime while driving, but failed to include the feature in the phone. The patent describes a lock-out feature that would prevent the use of certain functions while driving – including texting, and video call apps such as FaceTime. The complaint filed by the Modisettes alleges that the lack of this safety feature was a “substantial factor” in the accident that led to their injuries and their daughter’s death.
In a similar case earlier this year, the families of the victims of a fatal accident, caused by a driver checking her iPhone, filed a case against Apple on similar grounds. The families argued that Apple knew the phones would used for texting, but did nothing to prevent such dangerous use of their product.
According to Nora Freeman Engstrom, a Stanford law professor:
“Plaintiffs are saying to manufacturers: if your product unnecessarily diverts the driver’s attention away from the road in the moment before a collision, you may be on the hook. If the plaintiffs were to prevail, the case could have sweeping implications, not just for handheld devices, but for navigation systems, car radios – potentially even fast food purchased at drive-through windows.”
The plaintiffs may run into challenges, however, proving legally that the iPhone was the cause of the accident, when the distracted drivers could be labeled a “superseding cause”.
“A superseding cause breaks the causal chain, and here would relieve the iPhone manufacturer of liability,” according to Engstrom.
Furthermore, both accidents occurred in Texas, where there is no state-wide ban on texting while driving. Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University school of law, said:
“Ordinarily if a manufacturer is being sued for an illegal use of their product, they shouldn’t be liable.”
However, if a company had a feasible way to prevent the illegal use of a device, and failed to do so, there could be grounds for liability.