Parents' lawsuit claims FaceTime caused daughter's death

Commentary: A Texas family claims that because the driver of a car that crashed into theirs, killing their daughter, was on FaceTime, Apple should pay.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Can Apple's FaceTime be held responsible?

Apple

The SUV hit them from behind. It was going 65 mph.

It went up, onto and over the Modisette family's Toyota Camry on Interstate 35, north of Dallas.

James Modisette, who was driving, was critically injured. His five-year-old daughter, Moriah, sitting behind him, died of her injuries.

These are some of the details of a lawsuit filed just before Christmas in Santa Clara, California. Why there? The defendant is Apple.

The Modisettes claim that the accident, which happened in December 2014, occurred because the other driver was using FaceTime on his iPhone 6 Plus. According to the Denton Record-Chronicle, the driver of the SUV, 22-year-old Garrett Edward Wilhelm, admitted to police that he was on the phone at the time of the crash.

How, though, could Apple be responsible? The Modisettes say that Apple failed to "install and implement the safer, alternative design [...] to 'lock out' the ability of drivers to utilize the 'FaceTime' application on the Apple iPhone while driving a motor vehicle."

The lawsuit says that Apple applied for the patent in 2008 and had it issued in December 2014. It claims that Apple could have installed it by the time of the accident. It also says that Apple "failed to warn its users that its product was likely to be dangerous when used or misused in a reasonably foreseeable manner."

Therefore, says the suit, the phone was essentially defective when it left Apple's hands. The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages.

Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The driver of the SUV is currently facing manslaughter charges. The plaintiffs claim that Apple's failure to implement safety technology on the video chat service was "a substantial factor in causing the plaintiffs' injuries and decedent's death."

They say that Apple knew about "the compulsory, addictive and dangerous nature of iPhone usage by drivers," and it "voluntarily and intentionally failed to implement the technology."

If such an action was to succeed, it would surely open the door to many more lawsuits involving anyone using technology while driving. It would suggest that everything from FaceTime to Facebook used by a distracted driver contributed to any subsequent accident.

Tech companies have traditionally defended not immobilizing phones during driving by saying that it's not reliable. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, the companies say they can't guarantee that, in trying to block a driver's phone, they won't block a passenger's device.

This may be one of those issues where no company wants to be the first to disable phones.

As more accidents are caused by tech-related distracted driving, the pressure on all companies will surely increase. Highway deaths rose this year -- up 10.4 percent in the first half of 2016.

That's not to suggest that technology is responsible for all of them. The existence of all sorts of technology in cars, though -- some built-in, others not -- by its very nature must distract.

How many devastating crashes involving of drivers using Snapchat or Facebook must there be before tech companies -- or the government -- decide enough is enough?

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