Is the iPhone Defectively Designed?

This is a question raised by a fascinating NYT article on Sunday.  Here’s the argument: Apple has a patent on a technology that would prevent the iPhone from sending or receiving texts in a moving car.  This technology is not, though, part of the iPhone.  Since texting while driving is a significant cause of accidents, Apple could be liable on a design defect theory for any car accident where texting on an iPhone while driving causes the harm.

The missing information here is whether Apple’s patent actually works and at what cost.  I’m dubious that such a patent can tell the difference between a driver texting vs. a passenger texting, or someone texting in a car vs. someone doing that in a train or on a bus.

Suppose, though, that a patent could lock out only texting while driving.  Then I would think that, unless the technology was pretty expensive, the failure to include it as a standard feature would be a serious problem for Apple even if many customers would be angered by such a lockout.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure that Apple is unique here. If the patent was validly granted, then by this argument, any smartphone that fails to include the technology is defectively designed. Since a patent is required to enable a person of ordinary skill to make and use the claimed invention, it would follow that any competent smartphone company should be able to implement the lockout feature. True, Apple could do so without paying a license fee while others would need to license it (or design around) but that just goes to whether the alternative design was “reasonable.”

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    If you’re talking serious PR problem, I guess I have no problem with what you’re saying.

    If you’re talking serious *legal* problem, then I’d object. Apple ain’t your mom. They’re not the police. They have no obligation to build their products so that you can’t use them to do things you shouldn’t.

  3. The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says:

    Brett:

    I share your skepticism, but I think you make the wrong objection. Liability for foreseeable misuse of a product is not controversial, at least not in terms of getting such claims before a jury. I think the better defense is that the danger of texting while driving is open and obvious to the product user. Under traditional products liability law, a product generally is not defectively designed as a matter of law if the danger is open and obvious. (The Restatement (Third) has moved away from this principle somewhat; but I don’t know that the law has followed.)

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      Perhaps I should have said, “so that you can’t use them to do things you know you shouldn’t.”

      It starts to become a bit iffy when you’re talking about products that are smart enough to know when they’re being misused. Tesla could likely program it’s cars to know when you’re entering the expressway by the off-ramp, and object.

      But this would be a perhaps logical extension of current law, not a simple application of current law. You’d have to provide notice to manufacturers ahead of time that the law was being changed, no?