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There's no doubt our smartphones can be distracting. There's no doubt that distracted driving is dangerous, even deadly. And there's no doubt smartphones, or at least some alerts, could be disabled while we're driving. So does not automatically disabling distracting smartphone functions while we're driving mean that smartphone manufacturers are liable for distracted driving accidents?
Not according to a California Superior Court in Santa Clara, California. The father of a man killed by an 18 year old who was texting and driving, sued Apple, claiming the company knew the dangers of texting and driving, possessed a "lock-out mechanism" capable of disabling functions like texting while someone is driving, and failed to provide the feature for users. But the court dismissed the lawsuit, saying Apple's role in the accident was far too attenuated" to be legally responsible for the death.
iPhones Don't Kill People
There are four main elements to a negligence claim: duty, breach, causation, and damages. So even if Apple owed a duty of care to David Riggs (the man killed in the accident) and even if it breached that duty, his father (who filed the lawsuit) would need to prove that the breach, and not some intervening factor, caused his son's death. Leaving aside, for now, the fact that the court also ruled "Apple does not owe a duty of care to plaintiff," the court also questioned the lawsuit's allegation that Apple caused the accident.
While there is certainly the tendency to think, "Of course Apple caused the accident -- the driver was looking at his iPhone at the time," many courts see the party's actions as an intervening factor, therefore making themselves liable for any accidents. As a federal court in Texas put it, and the California court favorably cited:
... the forces generated by the iPhone's alleged defect and by Apple's conduct in designing and marketing the iPhone came to rest after the incoming message was delivered to [the] iPhone ... a real risk of injury did not materialize until [the driver] neglected her duty to safely operate her vehicle by diverting her attention from the roadway.
In this case, the decision by the 18 year old to text was considered "an independent intervening act," and the court held the "chain of causation alleged by plaintiffs in this case is far too attenuated for a reasonable person to conclude that Apple's conduct is or was a substantial factor in causing plaintiffs' harm." That might be overestimating the legal nuance employed by most "reasonable" people, but nevertheless, Apple, and other smartphone manufacturers, will likely not be held liable for distracted driving accidents.