Apple recently announced an iPhone update coming later this year, which allegedly will include a feature that stops phones from receiving updates and messages while driving, as well as keeping drivers from engaging in apps on their phones while on the road. This is not the first time that lawyers have had to examine the legal implications of such features, but it still brings up an interesting question: Is it the phone manufacturers’ responsibility to protect its users from negligence, or should it be up to the user?
One of the first cases concerning the implementation of a “Do Not Disturb” feature was in December of 2016. In this instance, a family sued Apple for not implementing the feature after the family’s daughter died in a car crash while a driver was using FaceTime, an app that would’ve been blocked under the feature. According to patent records presented in the lawsuit, Apple has had the rights to implement this feature since 2014.
The plaintiffs in this case argued that Apple had reasonable cause to believe FaceTime would cause its users to drive recklessly and that this feature, which the company withheld, could have prevented the daughter’s death. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the driver’s negligence superseded the company’s responsibility to provide a feature that would lock-out the user.
To fully discuss this issue, it’s important to note both sides of the argument. Let’s start with the side in favor of the defense.
The first element in the common law of negligence is a concept known as “breach of duty.” This refers to whether or not a defendant breached his duty of care to the victim. Now there is no question as to whether or not Apple owes a duty of care to its customers, but the real question is whether it breached this duty by not preventing its customers from driving while using its product.
According to the defense, the consumer was negligent by choosing to drive while using the device and Apple had no responsibility in what occurred to the plaintiff. Apple’s argument, in effect is that, if a chainsaw juggler accidentally dropped a chainsaw and cut off a spectator’s toe, it would be inappropriate for said spectator to sue the company who designed the chainsaw instead of the juggler.
Now let’s transition to the plaintiff’s point of view. If a manufacturer has the means to make its product safer, even if it’s only marginally safer, isn’t it still the manufacturer’s responsibility to do so? As Ralph Nader pointed out in “Unsafe At Any Speed”, manufacturers should be responsible for implementing safety devices if they have the means to do so. According to Nader, the automotive industry had the means to install three-point safety belts and the information to reasonably know the impact it would have for decades before actually doing it.
Likewise, Apple likely knows that its devices are used while consumers are driving and that this behavior leads to car crashes and injuries many of which might be prevented with the use of “Do Not Disturb.”
The Effectiveness of “Do Not Disturb”
Another factor that will undoubtedly come into play regarding “Do Not Disturb” features is their actual effectiveness in deterring distracted driving. According to various tech news outlets, the new feature in the update will allow passengers to override the “Do Not Disturb” feature by simply holding the power button and pressing “I am not driving” when prompted. You see where I’m going with this.
Since this requires a conscious decision to put themselves and others at risk, a significant percentage of drivers will not override their phones by pressing the “I am not driving” button when they are at the wheel. The “Do Not Disturb” feature may very well reduce the temptation of picking up a phone from an important caller, but drivers who decide that a text message or some FaceTime is more important than a human life will clearly be negligent if they choose operate their mobile phones while driving and cause a collision.