Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda. But didja?
On 12 December 2008 Apple Inc. sought a patent over a smartphone lockout mechanism. Despite having such a patent, it did not implement it in the iPhone 5. On 30 April 2014 Ashley Kubiak was driving in Texas when her iPhone 5 received a text message. She looked down to read it. The distraction caused her to collide with another vehicle, killing two people and catastrophically injuring a third. Kubiak was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 180 days imprisonment with five years probation: State v Kubiak, Tyler Morning Paper, 12 August 2014 (4th Texas Jud’l Ct, 2014).
The accident victims and their representatives sued Apple, alleging that it had negligently failed to design the lockout device into the iPhone. Specifically they argued that receiving a text message causes “an unconscious and automatic, neurobiological compulsion to engage in texting behavior.” Apple successfully applied to dismiss the claim: Meador v Apple Inc (US Dist. Ct., Schroeder J, 17 August 2017, unreported). The plaintiffs appealed.
The US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal. The Court noted that it was to apply the law of the forum state as well as that court be determined, without adopting any novel approaches to the law. In this case the key issue was whether the lack of a lockout device had caused the accident. That is, would common, practical experience consider it to be a substantial factor. The Court noted that
No Texas case has addressed whether a smartphone manufacturer should be liable for a user’s torts because the neurobiological response induced by the phone is a substantial factor in her tortious acts. To our knowledge … no court in the country has yet held that, and numerous courts have declined to do so. As such, no authority indicates to us that Texas courts, contemplating reasonable persons and ordinary minds, would recognize a person’s induced responses to her phone as a substantial factor in her tortious acts and therefore hold the phone’s manufacturer responsible.
As a result, for the Court to find that Texas law would view a smartphone’s effect on a user as a substantial factor in that person’s wrong would be an impermissible innovation of state law.