The family of a girl who died in a car crash is suing Apple in a Santa Clara County court, alleging the crash was caused by a driver who was distracted by a FaceTime call on his iPhone.
On Dec. 24, 2014, the the Modisette family was stuck in traffic on Interstate 35W in Texas when their vehicle was struck from behind by Garrett Wilhelm's Toyota 4Runner SUV at 65 mph. All four family members were seriously hurt and their five-year-old daughter Moriah later died in the hospital from her injuries.
When Texas highway patrol arrived at the scene of the crash, they found Wilhelm's iPhone still connected to a FaceTime call. Wilhelm, 22, has been charged with manslaughter, but the Modisettes have also chosen to seek damages from Apple for what they believe was their part in the crash.
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The family filed a lawsuit based on a patent the company filed in 2008 for technology that can lock a cell phone when sensors detect the owner's vehicle is in motion. Apple has yet to actually install the safety feature in any of their iPhones. A portion of the patent reads:
"Texting while driving has become a major concern of parents, law enforcement, and the general public. An April 2006 study found that 80 percent of auto accidents are caused by distractions such as applying makeup, eating, and text messaging on handheld computing devices. According to the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety and Students Against Destruction Decisions, teens report that texting is their number one distraction while driving. Teens understand that texting while driving is dangerous, but this is often not enough motivation to end the practice. The lock-out mechanisms disable the ability of a handheld computing device to perform certain functions, such as texting, while one is driving."
The Modisettes claim that Apple's failure to install their patented technology constitutes gross negligence. Patent law does not require the patent's owner to incorporate the technology into a product and sell it.
"Patent law is an incentive for inventing, not for creating product that reaches the public," said Amy Landers, professor of law and director of the Intellectual Property Law Program at Drexel University's Kline School of Law. "In fact, there are thousands of patents issued that have never found their way into any commercial product."
Landers also points out that negligence law, as opposed to patent law, raises a different question in this scenario, "Did Apple act unreasonably by failing to implement the measure, and ignore knowable risks in doing so?" she commented. "In many cases, that's a question for a jury. Certainly, the driver who caused this horrific event was, it would appear, the primary cause of the accident."
In 2015, 38,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S., and 26 percent of those accidents were caused by distracted driving, according to the National Safety Council. About 330,000 people are injured each year due to texting and driving. Many people believe that using a hands-free device in the car is legitimately safe, but these technologies are more often about convenience than safety.
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Several third-party tools are currently available that will lock your smartphone when your vehicle is in motion. One such device, Groove, invented by rocket scientist Scott Tibbitts, only allows navigation and listening to music while driving.
Tibbitts was inspired to work on Groove after he went to meet with the vice president of an engineering company back in 2008, but the VP never arrived. He was killed in a car crash on his way to the meeting by a driver who was distracted by his phone. Tibbitts was profoundly affected by the incident, which he said was "both mindless and tragic."
There are 46 states that currently ban texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, but no state in the country prohibits all cell phone use while driving. Devices like Groove are trying to make it easier for the public to change their habits, but implementation is slow.
While the circumstances of the Modisette family's lawsuit are devastating, they likely face an uphill battle. "This is a terrible event, certainly, yet it is difficult to say clearly who would win or lose," Landers remarked.
"Overall, negligence is a very fact-intensive claim to bring," she added. "Until some documents are produced and some witnesses questioned, it's going to be very difficult to predict the outcome here."
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