Should Cell Phone Companies Be Liable for Driver Distractions?

Snapchat. Text messaging. Instagram. Facebook. Email. Pokemon Go.iphone

All of these have one feature in common. They are all instantly available on your smartphone. The U.S. Pew Research Center opined last year that two-thirds of Americans owned a smartphone – more than double the number who did just four years earlier. It’s considered an essential connection to the broader world, no matter where you are. It’s also a source of deadly distractions. And phone companies know this. That’s why Apple years ago created and patented a technology that allows it to block users from accessing their phones when they are behind the wheel.

However, for a number of reasons, Apple never launched this feature. Now, plaintiffs in a car accident lawsuit are suing the technology firm, arguing executives knew company devices were being used for dangerous and illegal purposes. It also knew other approaches to the problem weren’t working, and it had the technology to stop it but failed to do so, according to the filing.

Specifically in this case, we’re talking about a 2013 fatal distracted driving car accident in Texas. One morning, a woman was speeding down the highway in her truck, scrolling through her phone to see her messages. She wasn’t looking at the one place she should have been:  the road. She veered into oncoming traffic. She hit a sport utility vehicle head-on. Not only did she kill the driver and front seat passenger, but also she left the child passenger in the back seat paralyzed from the waist down for life.

The product liability lawsuit alleges that Apple was aware its devices were going to be used for texting while driving, but it didn’t prevent the driver in this case from endangering other motorists.

Legal analysts have doubted whether this claim will be successful. In fact, a magistrate overseeing the case recommended preliminarily to dismiss the case, finding it was improbable the plaintiffs would be able to prove it was actually the iPhone that caused the crash rather than the driver, who was convicted of negligent homicide. She’s now on probation.

Even so, the case raises an interesting legal question. The evidence thus far collected shows that in its request for a patent back in 2008 (which was later granted in 2014), the company stated that “lock out” technology – the kind that can use sensors to detect when someone is using a device while operating a vehicle – was necessary because texting while driving is dangerous, and neither laws nor public awareness seemed to be doing much to put a dent in the practice. The company stated it was particularly a problem among teens. This indicates the company knew its products were being used in a way that was dangerous yet failed to stop it – even though it had the technology.

Phone companies and wireless networks have expressed a reluctance to implement this technology because whoever is the first is likely to see a drop in sales. Customers might be tempted to take their business elsewhere if only one company imposes such restrictions. However, there is always the possibility that the big-name players could launch the feature all at the same time.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Phone Makers Could Cut Off Drivers. So Why Don’t They? Sept. 24, 2016, By Matt Richtel, The New York Times

More Blog Entries:

UnitedHealth Group v. Harvey – Battling for Auto Insurance Coverage, Sept. 27, 2016, Spartanburg Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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