Issue by: Eunji Cho
Modisette v. Apple Inc.
Court of Appeal of the State of California, Sixth Appellate District, December 14, 2018

California Civil Code Section 1714 establishes the general duty of each person to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others. This duty is, however, not unlimited. Courts have crafted exceptions to the general duty rule where finding of such duty would result in such significant social burdens that the law should not recognize such claims.

On December 24, 2014, Bethany and James Modisette were traveling on a Texas highway with their daughters Isabella and Moriah when they came to a stop due to police activity. Garrett Wilhelm crashed into the Modisettes’ car at highway speed while using the FaceTime application on his iPhone 6 Plus, killing five year old Moriah and injuring the rest of the family. The Modisettes sued Apple Inc. alleging general and gross negligence, negligent and strict products liability, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, loss of consortium, and public nuisance.

According to the Modisettes’ First Amended Complaint, Apple developed a lockout technology on the iPhone 6 Plus, which would have automatically prevented drivers from using FaceTime while driving at highway speeds. Apple applied for and obtained the patent for the lockout technology in April 2014. The Modisettes allege that Apple knew or should have known of the risks caused by the use of the iPhone while driving, citing to Apple’s 2008 patent application, which stated that 80 percent of auto accidents are caused by driver distractions such as applying makeup, eating, and text messaging on handheld devices. The Modisettes allege Apple was negligent in failing to design the iPhone 6 Plus with the lockout technology. The Modisettes further allege that Apple failed to warn to warn users that it was dangerous to use the FaceTime application while driving.

In Rowland v. Christian, the California Supreme Court articulated the factors to consider when determining whether to exempt certain categories of cases from the general duty rule. The central factors are (1) the foreseeability of harm, (2) the closeness of connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, (3) the policy of preventing future harm, and (4) the extent of the burden on the defendant, and consequences to the community of imposing the duty. Applying the Rowland factors, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining Apple’s demurrer without leave to amend.

While the Court recognized that some of the factors, such as foreseeability of harm and the policy of preventing future harm, were in the Modisettes’ favor, other factors were found to weigh more strongly against a finding of a duty. First, the Court determined that there was not a “close” connection between Apple’s conduct and the Modisettes’ injuries. While the involvement of a third party, the driver Wilhelm, did not preclude a duty of care on Apple, the Court found that there was an insufficient direct relationship to warrant finding of a duty. For the Modisettes to be injured, they had to be stopped on a highway due to police activity, Wilhelm had to choose to use his iPhone while driving in a manner that caused him to fail to see that the cars had stopped, and Wilhelm had to hit the Modisettes’ car with his car, an object heavy enough to cause the resulting severe injuries. Apple’s design of the iPhone did not put the danger in play, and nothing that Apple did induced Wilhelm’s reckless driving.

Second, the Court held that even if the Modisettes’ injuries were foreseeable, strong public policy considerations dictate against recognizing a duty of care. In support, the Court looked to other jurisdictions which had held that although it is foreseeable some accidents would result from driver distractions from activities such as eating, applying make up, or looking at a map while driving, it would be unreasonable to impose a duty on the restaurant or cosmetic manufacturer or map designer to prevent such accidents, it is the driver’s responsibility to drive with due care.

In addition, the Court looked to the Legislature, which has elected not to ban all cell phone use by drivers in California, instead allowing cell phone use while driving through voice-operated and hands-free mechanisms. The duty alleged by the Modisettes, on the other hand, could preclude phone manufacturers from allowing the use of phones while driving, notwithstanding California law that expressly permits such use under certain circumstances. Given the pervasive and insistent nature of cell phone usage in our society, the complex public policy considerations involved, and the potentially seeping implications of finding a duty by Apple, the Court held that policy considerations dictate finding as a matter of law an exception to the general duty of care.

Next, the Court held that Apple’s design of the iPhone was not the proximate cause of the injuries sufficient to support a finding of strict products liability, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. While the design of the iPhone was a necessary antecedent of Modisettes’ injuries, the injuries were not a result of Apple’s conduct, but rather Wilhelm’s conduct when he crashed into their car while willingly diverting his attention from driving. The Court held that the gap between Apple’s design and the Modisettes’ injuries was too great to hold Apple responsible.

CONCLUSION

While well-established legal precedence allows for third-party liability, courts allow exceptions to the general duty rule where there is no “close” connection between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s’ injuries; and the burden to defendant and consequences to the community would be too great if a duty were recognized.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Modisette v. Apple Inc.

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