Can a Cell Phone Manufacturer be Held Liable for Texting While Driving Crashes?

Product Liability

By David Carnes, Staff Writer

Can a cell phone manufacturer be forced to pay damages to the victim of an auto accident when a negligent driver causes a crash while texting on one of the manufacturer’s phones? Three plaintiffs in Texas are trying to find out. A 2015 lawsuit styled Meador v. Apple. Inc. alleges that Apple should pay damages for the wrongful deaths suffered when Ashley Kubiak plowed into an SUV while checking her iPhone messages.

The lawsuit is based on a product liability theory, and it alleges that Apple failed to incorporate features into its iPhone that would have prevented the negligent driver from using its product while driving. In fact, at the time of the accident Apple had already been granted a patent on a device that can “lock out” a cell phone that is moving and in use by a driver, yet Apple did not install the technology on its iPhones for fear of losing business to competitors.

Product Liability

To win a product liability case like Meador v. Apple, Inc., the plaintiff must prove the existence of a design defect in the product. Although the law differs from state to state, this generally means that there was a foreseeable risk that the product could cause harm even if it was both manufactured and used by the consumer as intended by the designer. In most states, the plaintiff must also prove that:

  • a reasonable alternative design was available;
  • the manufacturer had the ability to manufacture the product according to the alternative design; and
  • the alternative design was economically feasible and would not defeat the purpose of the product.   

The most obvious defense to this lawsuit would be that an iPhone was not intended to be used while driving, and that Apple should not shoulder liability for the misuse of its products.

Since the problem with Apple’s patented “lock out” mechanism was that its technology was not advanced enough to ensure that it would not “lock out” the phone of someone sitting in the passenger’s seat, Apple might also argue that installation of the lock out mechanism would defeat the purpose of the cell phone by preventing its use on many occasions when the user was not driving. Apple might also argue that the mechanism is not economically feasible because its installation would prompt users to switch their business to competitors like Samsung.

Most legal scholars doubt that this lawsuit will succeed. Some argue that the problem is best resolved by the legislatures rather than the courts – if all cell phone manufacturers are required to install lock out mechanisms, call phone manufacturers will not have to worry about losing market share to a competitor by installing the device.

Advances in technology over the next few years could allow a more accurate lock out mechanism that would not kick in when the user is not driving. A technological solution would render a lock out mechanism more economically feasible for manufacturers and more convenient for users, which might in turn inspire states to pass legislation requiring these mechanisms. Nevertheless, the fundamental legal question will remain – to what extent should the manufacturer of a product be held responsible for the negligent use of the product by an end user?

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