Apple Has No Legal Duty to Implement Available Technology to Prevent Use of iPhone While Driving


    In Modisette v. Apple Inc. (Cal. Ct. App., Dec. 14, 2018, No. H044811), the California Court of Appeal, Sixth District, held that Apple did not owe a duty of care to plaintiffs and the iPhone’s design was not a proximate cause of an accident where a driver crashed into plaintiffs’ car while using the FaceTime application on his iPhone.

    In Modisette, plaintiffs were stopped on a highway in Texas due to police activity ahead. Garrett Wilheld was also driving on the highway, while using the FaceTime application on his Apple iPhone 6 Plus, and failed to stop and crashed into plaintiffs’ vehicle causing serious injuries and death. Plaintiffs sued Apple alleging causes of action for general and gross negligence, negligent and strict products liability, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, loss of consortium, and public nuisance. Plaintiffs alleged that Apple failed to design the iPhone “to ‘lock out’ the ability of drivers to utilize the “FaceTime” application on the Apple iPhone while driving a motor vehicle, … result[ing] in the[ir] injuries,” and failed to warn users even though Apple knew or should have known of the risks caused by the use of the iPhone while driving.

    Apple demurred to the First Amended Complaint arguing it did not owe plaintiffs a duty of care and that plaintiffs could not establish that Apple’s design of the iPhone constituted a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries. The trial court granted Apple’s demurrer without leave to amend as to both the duty and causation issues and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

    In affirming that no duty of care was owed, the Court of Appeal relied on Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 112-13, which articulates the factors to be considered when determining whether public policy supports the imposition of a legal duty. Analyzing the Rowland factors and distinguishing several cases relied on by plaintiffs, the Modisette court affirmed that it is the motorist who has the duty to exercise reasonable care, be alert to potential dangers, and not permit his or her attention to be distracted such that it would interfere with the safe operation of the vehicle. Indeed, nothing Apple did induced Wilhelm’s reckless and dangerous driving. Additionally, the Court determined that the consequences to the community and the burden placed on cell-phone manufacturers would be too great to impose a duty even if the injuries were foreseeable.

    The Court then concluded that the tenuous connection between Apple’s conduct and plaintiffs’ injuries barred a finding of proximate causation. As a matter of necessity, legal responsibility must be limited to causes that are so close to the result, or of such significance, that the law is justified in making the defendant pay. The Court noted that it was Wilhelm, not Apple, who caused plaintiffs’ injuries when he crashed into their car while willingly diverting his attention from the freeway. The gap between Apple’s design of the iPhone and plaintiffs’ injuries was too great for the tort system to hold Apple responsible.

    The Modisette holding provides helpful guidance because it meaningfully examines the relationship between proximate cause and the superseding conduct of a third party and limits the duty owed by the manufacturer of a product to third parties. Despite the fact that Apple had patented the “lock out” technology that plaintiffs claimed would have prevented the accident and was well aware of the dangers of “distracted driving,” the Court still refused to place a duty on Apple to design its product to prevent foreseeable conduct. 


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