Texting while driving: What is the phone manufacturer’s duty?

As I drive down the road, I frequently see drivers texting—even on the freeway.  If the driver gets in a car accident because he is texting we know that the driver is legally liable for the accident.  But what is the role of the phone manufacturer?  Should the phone manufacturer be held liable for accidents caused by texting drivers, when they have the technology to prevent such conduct?  That is the question being raised in a Texas lawsuit.

According to the products liability  lawsuit, Ashley Kubiak was speeding down a Texas highway while texting.  She then drove her Dodge Ram truck into a SUV, killing two people and paralyzing a child.  The families of the victims have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Apple claiming that the phone manufacturer has a legal duty to prevent texting while driving and it possesses the technology to do so.

Apple received a patent in 2014 for a lock out mechanism for its phones. The patent application recognized the ever growing problem of people driving and texting.  According to the patent, the invention can disable all distracting features of the phone, such as texting while someone is operating a motor vehicle.

If the technology exists to prevent these types of accidents, why shouldn’t Apple and other phone manufacturers be required to install such safety features in its phones.? As technology emerges, so does the responsibility of the manufacturers to install the latest safety features in its products. Consider the automobile for example. It wasn’t too long ago, that cars were sold without headrests, seatbelts and/or airbags.  Now, it would be considered unconscionable for a car manufacturer to put a car on the road without these safety features.

In California, juries are empaneled every day to make decisions about whether various consumer products are defective or not.  In these product liability lawsuits, evidence is produced about the designs of various products and whether the alleged design defect was responsible for personal injuries or wrongful death.  During the course of the trial, each side puts on extensive testimony from experts in the field as to whether the product is safe or not.  Ultimately the jury must decide whether the product failed to meet consumer expectations as to safety.  If it did not, the product is held to be defective.  The manufacturer is then liable for any and all harms caused by the defective product.  Frequently, the question of what safer designs were available is a key issue in the case.  This is a question Apple and other cell phone manufacturers may well end up having to respond to in this case, and similar ones to follow.

According to Deborah Hersman, the president of the National Safety Council, these accidents can be prevented.  The technology is there to prevent texting and driving.  In 2012, as chairwoman of the NTSB, a letter was sent to the wireless industry association urging the industry to make the appropriate changes to the wireless phones. According to David Teater, former National Safety Council member and road safety consultant, the phone manufacturers are fearful of restricting texting because they might loose customers.  It’s a theme we have seen over and over—manufacturers putting profits over people’s safety. Often times, the sting of a large judgment is the only catalyst to motivate corporations to make safety changes.  But how many people must die and suffer, and how many suits must be filed before the change happens?

Resources:

Phone Makers Could Cut Off Drivers. So Why Don’t They, New York Times, September 24, 2016

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