Apple is facing a lawsuit from a Texas family that claims the company’s FaceTime app contributed to the death of their five-year-old daughter in a traffic collision on Christmas Eve 2014. As reported by ABC News, the family argues that Apple should have done more to prevent drivers from accessing FaceTime while behind the wheel.
The tragic incident occurred on December 24, 2014 near Dallas, Texas when the Modisette family was traveling in their Toyota Camry. Police activity ahead of the family caused them to slow and then stop their vehicle as traffic backed up. The vehicle behind them, a Toyota 4Runner driven by Garrett Wilhelm, unfortunately failed to stop and slammed into the rear of the Modisette family’s car, severely injuring all members of the family and killing five-year-old Moriah in the process. The Modisette’s lawsuit alleges that Mr. Wilhelm was using FaceTime at the time of the collision, which contributed to his failure to notice the traffic stopped in front of him.
Because the use of FaceTime requires “cognitive, manual, audio, and visual efforts to operate, any and all of which distract the attention of a driver,” the suit claims, Apple should have implement safety precautions to prevent drivers from using the app. The suit goes on to state that Apple “expressly knew and/or should have known of the risks to human life and safety associated with…the misuse of certain functions available on the iPhone, such as texting, while operating a motor vehicle,” and cites a 2008 Apple patent application describing a “driver handheld computing device lock-out” feature.
While the family acknowledges Mr. Wilhelm’s role and responsibility in the crash — he will face manslaughter charges in Denton County, Texas next month — they argue that Apple shares some of the responsibility for failing to do all it could to address a problem it should have known about:
At the time of the collision in question, the iPhone utilized by Wilhelm contained the necessary hardware (to be configured with software) to automatically disable or ‘lock out’ the ability to use [FaceTime] … However, Apple failed to configure the iPhone to automatically ‘lock out’ the ability to utilize FaceTime while driving at highway speeds, despite having the technical capability to do so.
Duty of Care
While preventing apps like FaceTime from being used at highway speeds is a flawed solution that would prevent passengers from using the device as well, the Modisette family’s attorney explained to ABC News that Apple should have at least prompted users to identify themselves as a passenger or driver, and locked out access in the case of the latter. This approach is frequently used by many in-car entertainment and navigation systems and certain third party apps like Waze. While such an approach is trivial to defeat for those intent on unsafe driving, the lawsuit claims that Apple had a duty to do all that it could to ensure the safe use of its products.
As for Mr. Wilhelm, his attorney disputes the facts alleged in the lawsuit, and argues that “the use of a cellular device did not contribute [to the incident]” and that “it was simply an accident.” Apple, as is standard procedure for the company when it comes to pending litigation, declined to comment on the situation.