A lawyer in California is leading a personal crusade against distracted driving—a noble cause, to be sure. But the Los Angeles Superior Court, in which he has recently filed a “public-interest” lawsuit, is not the proper forum (or venue) for this current debate.
In the lawsuit, the Coalition Against Distracted Driving and Stephen L. Joseph, as an individual, seek an injunction against Apple, Samsung, Google, and Microsoft, requiring those companies to pay $1 billion annually to fund an “effective and ongoing national public education campaign” to educate drivers on the dangers of using smart phones and smart watches while driving.
Putting aside issues like the court’s lack of general jurisdiction over out-of-state corporations, and the plaintiffs’ basic failure to meet proper pleading standards, the complaint does not allege specifically-ascertainable injuries or legally-cognizable harm caused by the defendants. Instead, the complaint includes links to several tragic accidents related generally to distracted driving (and one regarding the mere existence of Uber), and alleges that the phones’ ability to send notifications can “achieve tragic consequences,” and features like “Apple Map . . . actively promote the use of smart phones and smart watches while driving.”
Without his identifying specific harm or damages, we’re left with Mr. Joseph’s own gut instinct that $1 Billion annually feels like a good figure. To justify this amount, he lists Apple’s profits and cash on hand. Since they could theoretically afford to pay for Mr. Joseph’s distracted driving campaign, his logic runs, it’s only fair that they do so. “This is a tiny fraction of profits that Defendants receive from the sale of smartphones and smartwatches,” he argues.
That’s simply not how the law works, and as a member of the bar, Mr. Joseph should know better. The California Bar and the Los Angeles Superior Court should demand better.
Implicitly acknowledging the frivolity and absurdity of his claim, Mr. Joseph did not even attempt to bring this as a product-liability action based on the manufacturers’ violation of their duty to warn consumers about inherently hazardous products. No, this is a nuisance action. The California Nuisance statute, in relevant part, states: “Anything which is injurious to health, … or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use, in the customary manner, of any navigable … street, or highway, is a nuisance.” (Emphasis is Mr. Joseph’s). In other words, the complaint alleges that smart phones are injurious to health and/or obstruct highways. The proof? A list of minors killed as a result of texting and driving, before promptly moving back to listing Apple’s profits. The complaint makes nary a mention of intervening causes.
The most absurd part of the complaint may be the section on standing, which includes a two-page list of Mr. Joseph’s past accomplishments. This list is illustrative—not of Mr. Joseph’s competence as an attorney, but of his true aim. The list does not include a single verdict in Mr. Joseph’s favor. Instead, it references his past efforts to use lawsuits in order to wage PR campaigns against corporations, force settlements, and prompt action by the legislative and executive branches of government.
This complaint is a normative policy argument (i.e., “Drivers should be told that a smart watch should never be used while driving”) disguised as a lawsuit, naming the corporations with the deepest pockets as defendants. (See, Compl. ¶ 2, “Apple, Microsoft, Google and Verizon are in the top five most cash rich companies.”). A basic tenet of our government is that we have three separate and distinct branches. If Mr. Joseph wants to lobby his legislators or an executive agency, the courtroom is not the place to do so. Until courts begin to sanction attorneys like Mr. Joseph for his misuse of the justice system, his self-aggrandizing lobbying campaigns will surely continue to clog dockets at taxpayer expense.