Modisette v. Apple – Should Apple Be Liable for Fatal Distracted Driving Crash?

A five-year-old girl was buckled snugly into her booster seat in the back of her parent’s Toyota passenger car. It was the the day before Christmas 2014. She and her family – her mother, her father, and her older sister – were on the Texas interstate. Up ahead, police had stopped traffic. The girl’s dad, behind the wheel, applied the brake. The vehicle stopped in the left lane. The driver of the sport utility vehicle behind them, though, never saw the brake lights. At the time, he was using the video chat application on his Apple iPhone 6 Plus, known as FaceTime. The brakes on his 5,000-pound vehicle, traveling at full speed, were never applied. iphone

Everyone was hurt, but the injuries of the little girl and her father were especially serious. He survived. She did not.

Now, in Modisette v. Apple, the family is suing the manufacturer of the iPhone and its FaceTime application, which comes pre-loaded onto all iPhones and iPads. The plaintiffs allege that Apple has the technology to determine when a user is operating a motor vehicle and can disable the video chat application, which can dangerously consume a driver’s attention.

There has been a lot of debate about this case in recent weeks since it was first reported by Courthouse News. Many people question why we would hold a mobile device manufacturer liable for a distracted driving accident. That might be like holding a knife manufacturer liable for a stabbing. It’s the person wielding the technology who should be responsible.

There are two things to consider with this logic. The first is that the driver is still held responsible. He’s not off the hook. He survived but is facing manslaughter charges and certainly could be named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit if his auto insurance company refused to settle for a reasonable amount. The fact of his liability does not necessarily excuse the liability of third parties. The second point to consider is that the legal concept of third-party liability – even in car accidents – is not unheard of. In fact, it’s pretty well-established. Consider, for example, the vicarious liability that can be imposed against car owners or employers of negligent drivers. Even when those parties are not directly negligent, they can be found vicariously liable based on the duty of care owed by virtue of their relationship to the vehicle or the negligent driver. We also see it in premises liability law, under which a property owner can be found liable for the violent acts of a third party – even if they had no part in the acts – for their negligence in failing to take preventative measures when the violent acts were foreseeable.

It’s this same kind of concept that plaintiffs are applying here in this case. Cell phone and technology companies are aware their products are being used in a manner that is dangerous and potentially deadly. They have the means and the technology to prevent these accidents. Yet they have not activated those protective features.

In this case, the FaceTime app was still running on the SUV driver’s phone when police finally found it, amid the wreckage.

The family’s civil lawsuit against Apple was filed on the two-year anniversary of the crash.

Between January and June of last year, the number of highway deaths increased by more than 10 percent, compared with the same time frame last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A major cause of this uptick, say officials, is the increasing use of apps on smartphones by drivers.

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

Additional Resources:

A man using FaceTime killed a 5-year-old girl in a highway crash. Was Apple to blame? Jan. 2,2015, By Cleve R. Wootson Jr., The Washington Post

More Blog Entries:

Rocket Scientist Offers Device to End Distracted Driving, Dec. 28, 2016, Asheville Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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