New Orleans-Based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling on if a Smartphone Manufacturer Can be Held Liable for Causing a Car Accident Death

Published by The Pellegrin Firm July 25, 2020

On December 18, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit based in New Orleans ruled that a smartphone manufacturer cannot be held responsible for a car accident under Texas law because its device made a sound that allegedly caused an accident. On April 30, 2013, two adults died in a car accident in Texas.  While the negligent driver was convicted of criminal charges, representatives of the deceased victims of sued Apple, claiming a neurological response to a phone noise distracted the driver. In 2008, Apple secured a patent covering “lock-out mechanisms for driver handheld computing devices;” however, this patent was not implemented on the iPhone 5, the phone owned by the at-fault driver. The plaintiffs/appellants alleged that the accident was caused by Apple’s failure to implement the patent and failure to warn users about the risks of distracted driving.

When federal jurisdiction is based on diversity, the substantive law of the forum state is applied. When there are issues involving state law, federal courts look to the decisions of the state’s highest court. If no decision of that court resolves the matter, an “Erie guess” can be made as to how the state court would resolve the matter.  See Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). If guidance from state cases is lacking, it is not for the federal court to adopt innovative theories of recovery under state law. The court therefore had to determine whether Texas law, as it stood at the time the court of appeals ruled on the case, would recognize a smartphone’s effect on its user as a substantial cause of an accident.

No Texas case or any other case in the country had addressed whether a smartphone manufacturer should be liable for a user’s torts because the neurological response induced by the phone was a substantial factor in her tortious acts. The Texas cases on which the appellants relied made clear that acceptance of their causation theory would be a substantial extension of Texas tort law. The closest analogy the court could make was to the Texas dram shop liability, which holds commercial purveyors of alcohol liable for the subsequent torts or injuries of the intoxicated customers that they serve. The liability arose from the Texas supreme court noting developments in tort law in other states. It is within reason to believe that Texas law may eventually evolve to allow causes of action against against smartphone manufacturers, but the federal court of appeals stated that is for the state courts to explore. The court noted that the debilitating effects of alcohol have been longer recognized than the effects of smartphones, and that there has been a much longer history of regulation of the former than the latter. Furthermore, state law across most of the country continues to place the onus of distracted driving on the driver. The court of appeals could not say with certainty that Texas law would regard a smartphone’s effect on a user as a substantial factor in the user’s tortious acts because doing such would be an innovation of state law disallowed under Erie. The judgement of the district to dismiss the appellants’ claims was affirmed. The case is Meador v. Apple, Inc., 911 F.3d 260 (5th Cir. 2018).