Liability. It’s fancy legal talk for “Whose at fault?” Blame is big in our culture when something goes wrong, and we’ve taken to using the legal system as a way of obtaining closure.
Case in point: I recently came across this story about a family in Texas who is suing Apple because a driver who struck their car, killing their daughter, was using FaceTime at the time of the accident. In their lawsuit, the couple alleges that it was incumbent upon Apple to warn everyone that their app could be dangerous when misused, and that they should have designed a safer app.
Folks who read this blog know that I’m not usually a fan of corporations, but I have to side with Apple here. It’s unreasonable, both in legal terms and in common sense, to expect a company to clairvoyantly predict all the ways in which a product can be misused or abused. And speaking of common sense, it should be painfully obvious to everyone that a video chatting app shouldn’t be used while driving.
There is definitely someone at fault here, but it isn’t Apple. It’s the man who was driving the car that hit them. He’s the one at fault because he’s the one who made the decision to use the app while driving. It was his actions that lead to the accident, not Apple’s.
What this appears to be is simply a grab for money. Why else sue Apple instead of, you know, the man who killed your daughter? Probably because the guy who hit your car isn’t worth billions of dollars. But more importantly, suing Apple doesn’t speak to justice–turning tragedy into financial gain is not justice.
But this case brings to light several important questions.
First, should companies be held responsible when their products are used incorrectly or abused? The answer to that, I should think, is a resounding NO. There was a similar debate about this issue during the democratic primary. Hillary Clinton supported a law that held gun manufacturers liable for incidents involving their products. Bernie Sanders did not support such legislation. I have to side with Bernie on this one (shocking, I know, me agreeing with Bernie). The fact that someone used a gun to commit a murder isn’t the manufacturers fault; that individual chose to use a gun for murder instead of self-defense or sport.
Where would this sort of thing end, holding manufacturer’s liable for the actions of individuals who use their products? Suing the brewery for a drunk driving accident? Suing the waitress who served the alcohol? Charging the gun shop owner who sold the weapon used in a crime as an accomplice or an accessory? Holding manufacturers liable is a very, very dangerous precedent.
Second, are companies obligated to warn people about the potential dangers of their products? This is a slippery slope. How much hand-holding do we expect these companies to do? This is why we have labels that say things like, “Do not stick hand in while lawnmower is running” or “caution: this hot drink is hot.” At some point, individuals have to exercise common sense and personal responsibility.
Third, is litigation the best way to get closure? Suing Apple isn’t going to bring the family’s daughter back. Even if they did win, say, a billion dollars, that still isn’t going to change the fact that their daughter died. But I think more importantly, we as a culture have to realize that getting money isn’t the same thing as grieving. We have a tendency in this country to throw money at problems.
But sometimes that simply doesn’t work. In the case of losing a loved one this is particularly true. Money does not replace loved ones and it isn’t a substitute for grief. Sorry. But I expect that our cultural solution to intense emotional angst would involve money somehow, because everything in this country revolves around money.
Perhaps what disturbs me the most about cases that seek to hold a manufacturer liable is that they absolve individuals of the need or expectation that they use common sense, critical thinking, and have a little personal responsibility for their actions. We’re becoming a nation where everything is always someone else’s fault, we’re never the ones in the wrong. We always try to point the finger at others when we screw up. “How was I supposed to know that my child could choke on tiny toy parts if he wasn’t supervised?! Give me money!” Maybe you could try, I don’t know, parenting your child. I don’t think it’s too much to expect people to know that hot coffee is hot or that you shouldn’t stick your hand in a lawnmower while it’s running. It’s dangerous to me to allow people to use the law to obviate their own lack of foresight, responsibility, or common sense.
Now, all of this doesn’t mean that people who experience what the family in that article went through don’t deserve closure. After all, the accident was not due to a lack of vigilance on their part; someone else’s poor choices directly affected them. But that person wasn’t Apple. It was the man driving the car. Who can and will be prosecuted for his crime–manslaughter. That’s where the legal system is supposed to provide closure to grieving people. In the fact that the person was caught, held responsible for their actions, and won’t be allowed to do it again. That they’ll be punished for their poor choices. That’s justice.