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    Can the Creators of Smartphone Apps Be Held Liable in Distracted Driving Cases?

    As technology has come to play a significant role in nearly all areas of daily life, accidents caused by distracted driving have skyrocketed. Often, the driver’s distraction is due to smartphone use—which may include sending or reading text messages, taking pictures, typing an address into a GPS app, or engaging with the phone’s multitude of other features. In some lawsuits stemming from car accidents involving a distracted driver, an interesting legal question has arisen: can the makers of the smartphone apps that the driver was using at the time of the crash be held liable? While the courts that have considered this question have been reluctant to assign liability to app makers, the issue will likely come up in future cases, and the outcome may vary depending on the circumstances. 

    In the recently decided Maynard v. Snapchat, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that Snapchat was not liable for an accident that occurred when a driver was traveling at excessive speeds and using the app’s “Speed Filter.” This feature captures the speed at which the phone is traveling and allows users to superimpose it on their “Snaps.” The Maynards, who suffered severe injuries when the speeding driver crashed into their car, alleged that Snapchat had been negligent in designing the Speed Filter and that the feature encouraged users to endanger themselves and others by attempting to reach high rates of speed. The court held that under Georgia law, Snapchat did not have a duty to prevent people from intentionally misusing its products in a tortuous way. Additionally, the court noted that since the Speed Filter worked in contexts other than unsafe driving—such as on airplanes—it was the users’ responsibility to avoid misusing it. 

    In Meador v. Apple, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals similarly declined to hold Apple liable for a driver’s tortious conduct. In that case, a driver looked down to read a text message, thereby causing an accident that tragically killed two adults and rendered a child paraplegic. Family members of the victims sued Apple, claiming that the company had been negligent in failing to implement a patent that it had secured for a lockout mechanism that would prevent smartphone use while driving. In addition, the plaintiffs cited studies indicating that receiving a text message triggers a neurobiological compulsion to check the message and that Apple had negligently failed to warn about the dangerous effects this compulsion may have on drivers. The Fifth Circuit declined to consider the neurobiological compulsion as a substantial factor in the driver’s tortious actions and held that the iPhone had not been a cause in fact of the victims’ injuries. 

    While Florida courts have yet to rule on whether app makers may be held liable for the actions of a distracted driver, a case filed in 2019 in the Palm Beach Circuit Court raised the question in a slightly different context. The plaintiff was a pedestrian who suffered debilitating injuries after she was struck by a Lyft driver. The complaint stated that at the time of the accident, the driver was distracted by notifications from the Lyft app, which he was required to monitor at all times in order to pick up passengers and generate revenue for the company. Among other claims, the plaintiff alleged strict liability against Lyft for the defective design of the app. The court has not issued a decision at this time, and it remains unclear whether the fact that the app maker essentially required drivers to use the app while behind the wheel will lead to a different outcome than the courts reached in Maynard and Meador. 

    Have you or a loved one been injured by a distracted driver? At Leighton Law, we have extensive experience with personal injury cases, including car accidents caused by drivers using a smartphone. Call us today at 888.988.1774 to speak with one of our attorneys! 



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