Texting While Driving, Bad Apple or Bad Decision?

Posted on August 29, 2017 by Aaron J. Freiwald

A California State Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Apple, finding the tech giant is not responsible for a 20-year old Minnesota boy’s death.  The young man, David Griggs, was texting-while driving at the time of his fatal car crash in 2013.

The boy’s family alleged that Apple was responsible for failing to install a “lock out” technology that would have prevented the phone from being used while the car was in motion.   In 2008, Apple applied for a patent for a lock out mechanism that would prevent a driver’s iPhone from being used while the car is in motion.  Based on this, the law suit argued, Apple knew the importance of this safety technology and should be held responsible for failing to install it in time to save David Griggs’ life.

We discussed this case on our podcast, Good Law Bad Law, Episode 18.    I think the Court probably made the right decision in dismissing this case, but the technology is changing so quickly and the problem of distracted driving is becoming so enormous that it may not be long before the balance of responsibility between Apple and individual drivers shifts.

Distracted Driving is a Huge Problem

It must be said that one’s heart must go out to these parents; their loss and pain must be so terrible, so profound.   Their pain and suffering is shared by so many families and the numbers are only increasing.

According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were nearly 4,000 deaths in 2015 related to distracted driving.  When the numbers for 2016 are released, I will be amazed if the death total isn’t significantly higher.  Just look out the window of your car next time you’re at a stoplight.  It seems everyone is on their damned phones!

The National Safety Council, meanwhile reports that 1.6 million car crashes are due to distracted driving (while looking at a phone) and there are some 330,000 injuries annually from phone-related crashes.  As many as one in four car wrecks may be due to distracted driving.
But should Apple and other smartphone makers be legally responsible?

Lock Out Technology and Legal Responsibility

Although Apple applied for a patent for a lock out safety feature on its iPhone, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office only granted the patent in 2014, one year after David Griggs’ death.

Still, Apple is taking the problem of distracted driving seriously.   Its newest operating system, ios11 includes a Do Not Disturb While Driving feature and an automatic text response that says, I’m driving right now, I’ll get back to you when it’s safe to do so.  Both safety features need to be enabled by the user.

The Court in the Griggs case had to decide whether the burden was on Apple to have installed something like a lock out feature so that drivers cannot access their phone while driving.  The Court determined that the technology just isn’t there yet and that it would be unreasonable to hold Apple responsible for the driver’s decision to text while driving.

A similar case, decided in 2016, reached the same result.  In that case, the Court focused on the actions of the driver in responding to a text received while driving and held that Apple shouldn’t be responsible.

The issue isn’t going away for Apple and other smartphone manufacturers.  Apple now faces a class action recently filed in Los Angeles and that case raises the same issues.

The Griggs case may be the latest court victory for Apple where the Court finds that the chain of causation is just too weak.  As the technology advances and becomes more and more reliable, the pendulum is going to shift, I believe.

Even though individual drivers must still bear their own responsibility for their own actions, it will be increasingly difficult for Apple to argue that it couldn’t deploy technology to reduce the incidence of distracted driving injuries.

Litigation can lead to better safety

The final lesson here, as far as I am concerned, is that litigation can and often does lead to important safety improvements.  Think of the Ford Pinto case.  Dare I say, the McDonalds coffee case (which led to lower and safer temperatures for fast-food coffee.)

Apple might very well be moved by the market to introduce more and more safety measures.  But companies do respond to pressure from litigation in how much effort and time and resources they devote to designing and implementing new and improved safety technology.

The sooner Apple and others can get lock out and other safety applications into their smartphones, the sooner that technology can start saving lives.

In the meantime, please just put down your phones and don’t text while driving.