Product Liability & Toxics Law News

Apple Shakes Liability in Fatal Distracted-Driving Car Crash

Dec. 17, 2018, 7:16 PM

Apple Inc. isn’t responsible for a fatal highway accident in which a driver, distracted by a FaceTime video call, plowed into another car, a California appeals court affirmed Dec. 14.

Only a few other rulings have addressed the issue of app-maker liability for auto accidents; this is the first California case to present the question, the California Court of Appeal, Sixth Appellate District, said.

No smartphone application makers have yet been held liable for user actions, though a Georgia case allowed claims over a speed-recording photo and video feature to proceed against Snap Inc.

Bethany, James, Isabella, and Moriah Modisette were in a car that was stopped due to police activity on a Texas highway. Garrett Wilhelm, who was using the FaceTime application on his iPhone, crashed into them at highway speed, according to the court.

Each of the Modisettes was injured, and Moriah, 5, died at the hospital.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., didn’t owe the Modisettes a duty of care, the appeals court said. And designing the phone without technology to lock drivers out of apps didn’t legally cause the accident, the court said.

The ruling affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case on the pleadings.

California public policy doesn’t strongly support finding that Apple owed the Modisettes a duty of care, the court said.

First, the relationship between Apple’s actions and the harm to the Modisettes wasn’t as direct as in other cases in which courts found a duty. Apple’s design of the iPhone simply made the driver’s use of the device possible, the court said.

And the “Modisettes’ complaint does not allege that Apple designed the iPhone to be particularly addictive to drivers compared to other smartphones, and the Legislature has rejected the Modisettes’ implicit argument that smartphones may never be used safely by drivers,” the court said.

The trial court rejected strict liability and other claims by the Modisettes because they didn’t establish that Apple caused the accident. The appeals court agreed. The “gap between Apple’s design of the iPhone and the Modisettes’ injuries is too great for the tort system to hold Apple responsible,” it said.

Another distracted-driving case, Meador v. Apple, Inc., is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Simon Greenstone Panatier PC and the Love Law Firm represented the plaintiffs.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP represented Apple.

The case is Modisette v. Apple Inc., Cal. Ct. App., 6th Dist., No. H044811, 12/14/18.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at mbarash@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com

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