Fatal Car Crash Provokes iPhone FaceTime Lawsuit

John Lister's picture

Apple is being sued after a fatal crash in which a driver was using the FaceTime video chat tool. The parents of the child who died are putting forward an unusual legal argument.

Normally lawsuits relating to technology involve a product or service a company has made. In this case, Apple is under fire because of a feature it didn't develop.

5-year-old Moriah Modisette died when her parents car slowed and stopped as a result of a highway patrol stop 1,500 feet away. The driver of the car behind failed to stop and crashed into the rear of the Modisette car. The lawsuit says police discovered the driver had been using the FaceTime feature despite driving at 65 miles per hour at the time of the crash.

Apple Had Patented Safety Feature

According to the lawsuit, Apple bears some responsibility because it had the ability to stop FaceTime working in speeding cars but chose not to add this feature. The lawsuit notes that iPhones such as the one the driver used have built-in hardware such as GPS and accelerometers that can show when a phone is moving and at what speed.

What makes the case particularly interesting is that it cites a patent that Apple received in 2008 which detailed "a lock-out mechanism to prevent operation of one or more functions of handheld computing devices by drivers when operating vehicles."

The lawsuit argues that this is direct evidence that Apple had considered the need to add such a feature and had the ability to do so, but actively chose not to do it. If the case goes to court, it could create an intriguing legal debate about whether a company that patents a safety technology has a responsibility to go on to use it. (Source: techeye.net)

Feature May Not Have Worked

While it hasn't commented on this specific case, Apple has previously suggested it's up to drivers to take responsibility for safe phone use and that they could switch a phone off or enable the Airplane or Do Not Disturb modes.

There's some question over whether the technology Apple patented would work effectively in the real world, with one big problem being how to stop phones from blocking features for passengers or people on public transportation. (Source: washingtonpost.com)

What's Your Opinion?

Does Apple bear any legal or moral responsibility for the crash? Does the fact that it patented a safety feature mean it should have to use it? Can companies do more to prevent distracted driving or will it always ultimately be down to the driver's decisions?

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Dennis Faas's picture

I don't think this argument has any ground. If the courts are going to hold Apple responsible for a driver that smashed their car into another car, then they should also hold the car manufacturers and the gas companies liable for making the car and for providing the fuel.

I think this comes down to common sense - only use your phone if it's hands free while driving, keep your eyes on the road at all times, and avoid any potential distractions while driving (including phone calls if necessary).

As for the patent to prevent FaceTime from working while in motion - that would be extremely difficult to implement. As the article mentions: there is no way for the phone to determine if its being used while in public transit, or by a passenger of a vehicle (and not the driver).

Steve Holmes's picture

What about the guy living in a mobile home splashing gas from a gas can into his Franklyn Stove (an open door kind of fireplace) causing a living room explosion that blew up burning and killing his small daughter sitting there on the sofa next to the stove. And the guy, if you can believe it or not, sued the gas can manufacture for her death, and won millions. I think that the person causing this crash should be put in jail, and throw away the keys. Not sue Apple. They put guys doing bank fraud in jail for 35 years without bail, but let those that should really be in there off in just a year or two. Go figure...

n5edd's picture

I think the current times adequately display that common sense went out the window long ago. Probably around the McDonald's hot coffee time. Not only have people lost touch with the meaning of adulthood, so have the courts. What is called for is uncommon sense as the 'common' isn't working. What I'm wondering is why there isn't a criminal charge against the one doing 65.

Navy vet's picture

Whatever happened to personal responsibility? What did this idiot think would happen if he focused on his phone or iPad while driving at 65 MPH?

Boots66's picture

Sorry Dennis - Can't agree with you this time - Apple should have known that there are immature irresponsible ignorant people out there who seem to think that they need to be connected via whatever, cellphone, ipod, ipad or laptop. I also agree with Navy vet when he says that people need to start growing up (get mature)- learn common sense and accept responsibility for your actions. The driver should get hammered for what he did, but Apple should be liable as well - I may be able to take a moment to select a name that I need to call on my screen on my car that is attached to my cell phone, but I am responsible enough not to try to do it if the traffic is at all busy.
However, Toyota, who made my vehicle, has also incorporated into my cell phone link, that if the car is moving, I have no access to the address book or to a dial pad.
I must pull off the road and stop to do so - Why could NOT Apple have simply done the same thing? Would it make Face Time not as wanted an app? NO - Apple has to shoulder it's share of the blame for not adding in the code to prevent what happened!

Dennis Faas's picture

What you're describing only works if the phone is connected to the car via Bluetooth connection. If you don't use that feature then you can still use your phone to do FaceTime while driving, etc as the phone has no way of "knowing" if you are the driver or a passenger. (It is also possible to pair a phone to a car if you're a passenger and the phone wouldn't be any the wiser). That is my point, which is why it would next to impossible to implement a "kill switch".

The only logical option would be to implement an "end user license agreement" before FaceTime is allowed to be used - such that the user must agree not to use the phone while driving if it detects through GPS or an accelerometer that the phone is moving in traffic. But, that would only work if the phone has the hardware capability AND those features are turned on. If not, users would have to agree not to use the app if driving. I am guessing that is likely already part of an end user agreement when the app is installed. It's still not a very clear-cut approach.

matt_2058's picture

I can agree with a little of each argument. The driver is ultimately responsible. It was the driver's choice to use the device to be distracted.

As for Apple being partly responsible, I think more info is needed. Apple should be responsible to a certain degree, but maybe only in principle and not monetarily. They patented a safety technology and chose not to implement it. Did they let any other businesses use this tech freely, or at minimal cost, for safety's sake? Or have they protected the patent diligently? To me this shows interest in ownership and exclusivity.

I've driven alot and lived in a few states. Many people in my area like to set their cruise control under the speed limit and drive in the fast lane and text. They have little worry of someone getting in front of them and slowing down. I wish all areas had the no-hands law. Or better yet, start issuing citations for ANY distracted driving: holding cell phones, texting, reading a book, eating, etc.

hybridauth_Twitter_91317568's picture

We have absolutely no way of knowing why Apple did not implement the kill switch feature.

Companies patent stuff all the time that they don't use, maybe it wasn't reliable, and in that case, Apple would be in bigger trouble if it was implemented because they would be accused of being negligent for including a safety feature that they knew was not reliable.

In that case, they would almost certainly lose in court, so how can you blame them for not turning it on?

Do we even know it's in the app, just not turned on, or is it just patented, but not included and thus not even available in FaceTime?

If anything, your argument should be more in line with some of the other comments about the laws, even when in place, both not being strong enough, nor enforced enough, to discourage idiot drivers to stop, nor effective in removing such drivers from the road.

AS for your comment about drivers setting cruise control in the fast lane and "have little worry of someone getting in front of them and slowing down", they should always be vary of that possibility because it does happen, and not very rarely, either.

MONSTERTEK's picture

From my own personal experience, while I am driving my vehicle my wife has Face Timed people either sitting in the passenger seat or in the back seat. To use a phone in the manner of the report is just plain stupid, and there are plenty of stupid people who do this or worse while driving. If Apple is responsible for this accident I need to prepare a lawsuit against the Homelite people, I can start up my chainsaw while I am driving!

kitekrazy's picture

I grew up in a time where you were responsible for your actions. Those who disagree probably went through public education where everyone shares the blame.

"The only logical option would be to implement an "end user license agreement" before FaceTime is allowed to be used"

I'd bet there was something like this already. No one reads the EULA anymore.

sytruck_8413's picture

With apologies to the lawyers here, again we have the lawyers attempting to run the country. Ambulance chasers. If the penalty was stiff enough then most folks would stop. Driving while texting or facetiming or.. and hurting or killing someone should be close to or the same as driving drunk. Maybe even just doing it without hurting someone. Calif has a new law that your phone has to be "mounted" if you're gonna use it. And then only a single swipe or touch. Small fine though, $20.00 fist time, $50.00 after that. How about $20.00 then $100.00? Ask the dead persons family if that's enough?

diddleyman666's picture

Sad events like this would occur with a lot less frequency if the ordinances enforcing hands free cell phone use had some teeth and were actually enforced. Here in California it's a joke. How many people know someone who was actually fined for yakking on their cell phone or texting while driving? Not many I would presume. And the fine amount. A major joke.

How can there be a $300 fine for littering and a $20 fine for driving inattentively and endangering yourself and others? There will always be people that will do this whatever the consequences,but, if the fine were substantial and it started being enforced the incidents like this would diminish. Word would get around.Same with making unsafe turns and not using your turn signal. Unenforced laws with minimal consequences are useless.

I have no love for Apple and their business practices, but don't think they can be held accountable for this incident. I think, in addition to the individual involved,who bears primary responsibility, the state should bear some responsibility for events like this. Recognizing a danger and doing practically nothing about it is unforgivable.

meyer47_8499's picture

From the above comments it perfectly clear that people are addicted to their cell phones.
I personally have been rear ended 3 times on the same street on the same day, and I am so sick of all the excuses I hear, from law enforcement, governments, and all individuals that own a mobile device.
Here the fines have been increased to $543 and still there is end insight, the only reason for fines appears to be to fatten the bottom line of governments and nothing more, it does not work and will never work.
Now people want to blame Apple, Apple has nothing to do with the defiant public.
As one comment above stated "we need to grow up and get our heads out of our A$& period. Really??? Do you have to be so darn connected 100% of your waking hours??
And if that does not work, governments need to get on the car manufacturers since they are partly to blame by installing phones in most newer vehicles, that said, if people don't change then the alternative would be to install a blocking device to work while the engine is running, then you must pull off the road and turn the engine off to use your mobile device, plain and simple.
Oh yeah, on top of that our vehicle insurance will continue to rise too with all the preventable claims, yup, you and I also pay for those defiant I don't care idiots.
Let's be clear here, talking while driving is a distraction, it has been proven to be so, even chatting with your passengers, because your focus has become divided no matter how you look at it.
And I'm still waiting to my vehicle repaired since last October, please don't excuses - I've heard them all, and paying the price for some moron that can't keep his/her mouth shut while driving.

BigZ1981's picture

This is utterly ridiculous. People feel that they can text and even FACETIME??? when driving. Why oh why? I have tried to text while driving years ago, when smartphones first came out, and I found it to be extremely frustrating because I couldn't focus on the message I wanted to send. I would type one letter then look back at the road. It was at that point I realized that texting while driving wasn't worth it. "OK Google" and voice texting have been invaluable for me because there are times that I need to let someone know I'm on my way while driving and I don't have to look at my phone when I'm doing it. I can carry on phone conversations while driving using my bluetooth headset, but I cannot fathom being on a Facetime video chat while driving. In response to the previous post from Meyer, talking while driving is not necessarily a distraction, I tend to focus more on my driving than I do on the conversation, so needless to say, my conversations are rather short when driving. I think that you can drive while having a conversation as long as you keep your attention on the road. I've had to put conversations on pause when I got to heavy traffic and told the person to hold on because I'm going into heavy traffic. Most of the time they'll end the call by saying to call them when I get off the road. I've yet to get into an accident while driving. The last time was around 15 years ago, when I was young and foolish. Enough about me. Let's talk about the issue at hand.

Our society has fostered an entitlement and overly accepting mindset. "It's not their fault, it's circumstance, or environment, or their family, or the elites, or corporate America, or the government, etc." The list goes on & on. Pushing blame & not taking responsibility for one's own actions is a result of this. Giving everyone a trophy even if they lose fosters that entitlement mentality. They have nothing to strive toward if they're still getting an award at the end of the day. But certain agencies say no, there are no winners or losers, we aren't keeping score, they're just playing the game, they can have fun playing it. They don't have to define who wins or loses so the losers don't have to feel a sense of loss. That does nothing to drive them toward a goal. So then that fosters the thinking that "I tried, so I deserve something to show for that." It doesn't matter that I didn't put my all into it, it doesn't matter that I didn't drive myself to get better in order to win, give me something anyway. I'm sorry, but life doesn't work that way. The only way you can succeed in life is to strive toward a goal.

So where does this fit into this article? The simple fact that there are still people who refuse to learn from the things happening around them. "Oh that person crashed because they didn't know how to do it right, it won't happen to me. I'm a good driver." Or whatever other excuse runs through their head for why they still text/facetime/facebook/game/etc. while they're driving. Then when they do rear-end someone..."It wasn't my fault!" Ugh. I know I went on an entire rant, but it needed to be said. There is so much more I want to say on this line of thinking, but then I'll be truly digressing away from the article, and I don't want to do that to you. Happy Reading!

David's picture

To have an automatic lock-out on a device, just because it is moving at speed, is asinine. Cars can also transport passengers, who could use Facetime without creating any risk. Why should they be locked out?

The sole liability is with the moron using Facetime while driving, but no moreso than if he had just been texting while driving.

guitardogg's picture

This one certainly got some notice. Not a big fan of Apple, but only the moron behind the wheel has any responsibility in this case! Like someone above mentioned, is the car maker at fault too? What about the Highway Patrol for putting up a checkpoint in the first place? We need to get back to people being responsible for their actions, and not blame/sue the deep pockets like Apple! Convict this man of vehicular manslaughter at least, and don't put the blame where it does not belong!!!