Do Patents Make Inventors Legally Responsible?
In 2013, a child was paralyzed after a distracted driver in a Dodge Ram truck collided into a sports utility vehicle. The driver and a passenger of the struck vehicle were also killed. What caused the distraction? A message on the driver’s iPhone.
The victims’ families filed a product liability claim against Apple. In an article in the New York Times, Matt Richtel presented the question, “Does Apple — or any cellphone maker or wireless company — have a responsibility to prevent devices from being used by drivers in illegal and dangerous ways?” The article highlights safety components Apple has the potential to install into its devices. Specifically, Apple owns a patent for technology equipped to lock cellphone data while the owner is in a moving vehicle, essentially eliminating the texting while driving phenomenon that appears to be causing the increase in driving fatalities. This increase in levels of fatalities, according to the article, has not been seen in the past 50 years. Does Apple’s ownership of the patent give rise to the ‘responsibility’ Richtel mentions?
Legal experts advised Richtel that the case presented would have to prove that the iPhone was the cause of the accident in order for a Texas magistrate to stay a motion to dismiss. In a general negligence claim for a car accident caused by a distracted driver, the causation factors are clearer. As a hypothetical from an article on car crashes notes, “In such a case, the driver has a duty to exercise reasonable care while driving. She breached that duty when she failed to pay attention to the road by checking her phone. The accident would not have occurred “but for” her using her phone; such an accident was foreseeable when she used her phone. Damages resulted from the accident. Thus, the driver is liable for the accident.” It would be difficult to prove that an inanimate object caused the fatal accident, which could ultimately lead the case to be dismissed; in other words, this follows the logic. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Cellphone manufacturers also have other defenses that focus on the plaintiff’s actions. The cellphone manufacturers can use the Correia defense, where a plaintiff’s unreasonable use of the product bars recovery under a product liability claim. With the widespread media platform against phone usage while operating a vehicle, it can be argued that a driver is unconvincing if he or she claims ignorance to the associated risks. The one exception to the Correia defense is cigarettes, primarily because of the magnitude of their addictive nature and the problems associated with the product. However, though Richtel identifies arguments focused around the addictive qualities of a cellphone, he acknowledges that cellphones cannot be compared with cigarettes in terms of magnitude.
The question goes back to – does a patent create a right to the consumer? While many professors and advocates for safe driving suggest that cellphone manufacturers have a civic and social responsibility to deploy the technology because they control the patent over the new devices, this logic does not establish a legal right that has standing in a court room. Patents can be obtained without the owner constructing a prototype before initiating the application and without the owner ever manufacturing the invention.
Even if a patent is created, society cannot limit how a patent or license owner uses the invention. Even Martin Shkreli was not successfully sued for raising the price of Daraprim, though arguably his actions endangered the lives of many. Shkreli cannot be forced to use his license for the benefit of society, and neither can Apple or any of the other wireless companies be held responsible for the tragedies that occur when drivers use cellphone devices.
Haniel Ogburu-Ogbonnaya is a J.D. candidate, 2018, at NYU School of Law.