A tragic accident occurred just before Christmas several years ago when a family car was struck by an SUV. The family of four was in a Toyota Camry traveling on the interstate and was forced to bring their car to a stop due to police activity up on the road ahead. Behind the family was a man in an SUV who was using Apple's FaceTime video chat on his iPhone as he drove. Because he was looking at his phone, he did not see the Camry's brake lights. His SUV hit their car at full-speed, injuring all four members of the family.
The father, who was driving, was trapped in the car along with a five-year-old who was in the back seat. Both had to be pried out of the vehicle, and while the father lived, the little girl died due to the severity of the injuries.
The iPhone the SUV driver was using was undamaged, and FaceTime was still running when police found it after the accident. The Washington Post indicates that the driver is facing manslaughter charges. The little girl's family, however, does not think that the driver is the only one to blame. The family is suing Apple for not disabling the app while the man was driving.
The argument that the family is making for holding Apple accountable is that the tech company should block distracting iPhone apps when someone is driving. The lawsuit claims that Apple can tell via the device's GPS and accelerometers when someone is driving, so the company should lock out a driver who is trying to us FaceTime while on a highway.
The company has not done so for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of being able to tell when someone is actually driving versus when someone is a passenger in a car or is on a train or other type of public transport. The tech company also believes that the responsibility lies with the driver to use the phone in a responsible way, including putting the phone into Do Not Disturb mode or silencing the phone if they don't want to be distracted by alerts while driving.
If Apple could be held liable for not disabling the FaceTime app, it is likely that other app makers would also have an obligation to disable distracting apps when motorists are behind the wheel. It remains to be seen how this particular case against Apple will turn out, but past cases suggest it may be an uphill battle for accident victims to hold phone and app makers accountable for accidents that occur when drivers are distracted by their devices.
The New York Times reported on a case back in 2003 in which a woman sued Cingular after a crash that was allegedly caused by a driver on a Cingular Cell phone. In that case, the suit was dismissed and the Indiana appeal's court upheld the dismissal since the accident was unforeseeable and there was no legal relationship between the victim and Cingular.
The problem of an absence of a legal relationship still exists, but it can hardly be argued today that distracted driving accidents are unforeseeable. In fact, since distracted driving accidents are eminently foreseeable due to how frequently they occur, it is possible there is a stronger argument to be made now that phone and app makers should take some responsibility for stopping dangerous distracted driving behaviors.