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Fifth Circuit Says Apple Can't Be Held Liable For A Car Crash Caused By Someone Reading Text Messages


Seeking to hold tech companies responsible for the actions of their customers and users is a national federal court tradition. Law firms like *checks notes* 1-800-LAW-FIRM and Excolo Law have made a cottage industry of this, scoring dismissal after dismissal of their lawsuits seeking to hold Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube responsible for the violent actions of terrorists around the world.

Seeking justice -- or at least compensation -- for wrongs committed against you and the ones you love is a natural instinct. Issues only develop when you take the fight to a third party only tenuously connected to the wrong that was committed. A lawsuit against Apple has been dismissed for the second time. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is no more impressed with the arguments that failed to make an impact at the lower level.

In this case, the appellants sued Apple for a car crash caused by a driver reading text messages on her iPhone 5. Maybe the driver turned out to be judgment proof -- especially after being convicted on two counts of criminally negligent homicide. The appellants -- who lost two family members in the auto accident -- feel Apple is liable because it did not implement a lock-out process it had patented in 2008.

The appellants claim Apple recognized the texting-while-driving problem but failed to do anything about it. The Appeals Court says [PDF] a Pavlovian response to incoming texts cannot be Apple's fault, not even at the state level.

This case asks us to decide whether, under Texas law, a driver’s neurobiological response to a smartphone notification can be a cause in fact of a car crash. Because answering in the affirmative would entail an impermissible innovation or extension of state law, we answer in the negative.

The court goes on to point out that the cases cited by the appellants dealing with vicarious liability all have one thing in common: reasonable expectations.

The Texas cases on which Appellants rely make clear that acceptance of their causation theory would work a substantial innovation in Texas law. These cases present garden-variety theories of causation that ordinary minds would readily accept, so they have little to say about the present case. One is Dover Corp. v. Perez, which concerned a heater pumping carbon monoxide into an apartment due to its negligent manufacture and installation... No useful analogy exists between a smartphone’s effect on users and a heater generating carbon monoxide. Others are Dew v. Crown Derrick Erectors, Inc., 208 S.W.3d 448, 449–50 (Tex. 2006), about a worker who fell through an opening in an oil derrick platform left unprotected, and Rio Grande Regional Hospital, Inc. v. Villareal, 329 S.W.3d 594, 603–04 (Tex. App.––Corpus Christi 2010), about a nurse who left a psychiatric patient unattended with razor blades. No worthwhile analogies suggest themselves here either. Appellants also cite a case about Ford’s decision not to install a seatbelt for the middle seat in the Ford Bronco’s rear row. Ford Motor Co. v. Cammack, 999 S.W.2d 1, 8–9 (Tex. App.––Houston [14th Dist.] 1998). An analogy may perhaps be drawn between a distracting phone and a car seat without a seatbelt, but it does not get us very far. A user of the former can make it safe for driving by silencing or switching it off; no such simple fix exists for the latter.

The court's condensed take appears at the bottom of the footnote appended to this paragraph.

None of the causes alleged in these cases strains the sensibilities of a reasonable person, nor does any resemble the cause advanced by Appellants here.

The court also notes that Texas laws governing distracted driving place the onus on the driver -- not the cellphone provider nor the vehicle manufacturer, no matter what safety features may have been bypassed or never implemented.

Under state or federal precedent, the outcome is the same: the cause of the crash was the driver, not the cellphone manufacturer.

No Texas case has addressed whether a smartphone manufacturer should be liable for a user’s torts because the neurobiological response induced by the phone is a substantial factor in her tortious acts. To our knowledge, informed by submissions to us, no court in the country has yet held that, and numerous courts have declined to do so. As such, no authority indicates to us that Texas courts, contemplating reasonable persons and ordinary minds, would recognize a person’s induced responses to her phone as a substantial factor in her tortious acts and therefore hold the phone’s manufacturer responsible.

As frustrating as it can be for those who've experienced a tragedy, the person who has wronged you is responsible for their actions -- not their cellphone provider or their social media platform of choice.


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