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Is It Possible to sue the Manufacturer of the Smartphone That a Negligent Driver was Using at the Time of an Accident in Which I was Badly Injured?

While filing a lawsuit against a smartphone maker may seem completely reasonable, previous attempts to hold a smartphone manufacturer (such as Apple, Samsung and LG, etc.) liable for damages in distracted driving cases have not proven fruitful. Under Maryland legal statutes, causation is one primary criteria that must exist for a lawsuit to be viable. For instance, not long ago a case that came before a federal appeals court had named Apple, Inc. as a defendant in a fatal automobile accident; however, the outcome was not satisfactory to the plaintiffs.

The case in question (Meador v. Apple, Inc.) attempted to hold Apple liable for manufacturing an iPhone that allegedly was the cause of the deadly car crash back in 2013. The issue that was before the lower court was whether a motorist’s neuro-biological response to smartphone text notifications could be deemed the “cause-in-fact” of a car crash. In that case, the plaintiffs claimed that a driver was operating her vehicle on a public roadway in Texas when she was dangerously distracted by a text message on her Apple iPhone.

By looking down to read the message, the driver reportedly took her eyes off the road long enough that she ended up crashing into another car, killing two adults in that vehicle and rendering a child paraplegic as a result. The parties representing the crash victims decided to sue Apple for negligence and strict products liability, and claiming that the wreck was caused by that company’s failure to warn users of its iPhone products about the risks of distracted driving.

The basis of the plaintiffs’ argument was that text messages trigger “an unconscious and automatic, neuro-biological compulsion to engage in texting behavior.” As part of the initial case, it was stated that Apple had obtained a patent in 2008 for driver lock-out mechanisms on handheld devices — mechanisms which were reportedly designed to address the serious danger posed by texting while driving. However, according to court records, Apple had not included any type of lock-out mechanism on the iPhone 5, which was the same model used by the woman at the time of the crash.

In the initial court case, Apple’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claim was granted by the presiding district judge. The court’s reasoning for this was that under Texas state law, negligence requires plaintiffs to show “proximate cause,” which entails foreseeability and what is know in legal circles as “cause-in-fact.” Cause-in-fact means that the defendant’s actions were “a substantial factor in bringing about the injury which would not otherwise have occurred.” In its finding, the court explained that being a “substantial factor” was also required for the strict-liability claim.

The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. In Meador v. Apple, Inc., 17-40968, the appeals court in no uncertain terms rejected the negligence and strict product liability claims, as brought by the plaintiffs, that Apple allegedly failed in its responsibility to 1) install the lock-out software granted in the company’s 2008 patent; 2) warn drivers of any risks associated with texting and driving; and 3) did not recognize the unconscious neuro-biological response that drivers experience in response to text message alerts coming from their smartphones.

The upper court drew a parallel between the plaintiffs’ lawsuit and previous legal actions against dram shops, which have resulted in established case law regarding the responsibility of establishments that serve liquor to the public. The upper court’s opinion stated that as with drinking and driving, the law also makes it a crime for motorists to read, write, or send a text message while operating a motor vehicle. The upper court’s decision was based on the understanding that a smartphone’s effect on its user could not be a substantial factor in the user’s actions under state law. As such, the court held that under Texas law, the iPhone in question could not be a cause in fact, which then resulted in the dismissal of the appeal.

Here in Maryland, plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits must prove causation. Plus, any negligence claim requires the existence of a proximate cause — which is made up of 1) a “cause-in-fact” and 2) a “legally cognizable cause.” To clarify, the term cause-in-fact refers to whether or not a defendant’s actions resulted in the plaintiff’s injury; and the term “legally cognizable cause” refers to whether the defendant should be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries (when taking into consideration both policy and fairness considerations).

For the purposes of personal injury claims, “cause-in-fact” is typically decided by determining whether or not the plaintiff’s injuries would have occurred “but for” the defendant’s actions. It is important to point out that causation (in legal terms) often requires a determination of whether or not the plaintiff’s injuries were a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions.

This area of the law can be rather complicated for a layperson, which is why it is always prudent to contact an experienced Maryland personal injury attorney when considering legal action of any kind. Case law, both here in the state of Maryland and at the federal level, will always have a bearing on what course to take when contemplating a personal injury claim against another party(s).

At Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC, our skilled legal staff can help victims and their families navigate what can often be a complex and confusing system for the average person. Add to that the tragic circumstances that often go hand in hand with personal injury or wrongful death claims, and it is always a good idea to have an experienced lawyer as your guide.

Should you have legal questions pertaining to an automobile accident that resulted in you or a loved one being seriously injured, our attorneys are ready, willing and able to help you understand the law and its impact on your case. If your case has merit, our capable legal team can help you recover the monetary damages you deserve under Maryland law. Contact us today to set up a free, no-obligation initial legal consultation.

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