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Grieving family sues Apple Inc.

Petition claims company could have kept drivers from using FaceTime

A Cross Roads family has filed suit against Apple Inc. in a California court, claiming that the company was negligent by allowing FaceTime video chat to be used by motorists while driving.

FaceTime is a video-calling feature Apple launched in 2010. It has been built into newer Apple iPhones for several years.

Five-year-old Moriah Modisette was killed after another driver crashed into the back of the Modisette family car on Christmas Eve 2014. Moriah’s parents, Bethany and James Modisette, and her older sister, Isabella, were also injured in the crash that happened on Interstate 35W near Allred Road in southwest Denton. According to police reports, the driver, Garrett Wilhelm, told officers he was using FaceTime prior to the wreck. When officers located Wilhelm’s iPhone at the scene, the application was still running.

The Modisette family’s lawsuit was filed Dec. 23 in Superior Court of Santa Clara County, where Apple is based.

In the petition, the family alleges that Apple had the capability to disable a driver’s use of FaceTime for many years. The company applied for a patent in 2008 for a function that would allow its smartphones to disable certain functions while the user was driving.

To summarize the need for the patent, Apple engineers wrote in the application that drivers know their phones can be a dangerous distraction, but new laws banning the practice were not proving a deterrent. Texting and driving was becoming a widespread problem that law enforcement couldn’t address, they wrote.

Apple received the patent in April 2014, but by then the capability was old news in the tech industry. Smartphones have built-in global positioning that can detect when the device is in motion. Applications to block calls and texts have been on the market for years, including free apps from insurance companies hoping to reduce losses.

In their petition, the family claims Apple was negligent in releasing the iPhone with FaceTime without the lockout capabilities, or a least a warning that using the application is a distraction for drivers. Through product liability laws, they are seeking unspecified damages for Moriah’s death, for their injuries and for their attorney’s costs.

The family is being represented by attorneys in Texas and in California. Jennifer Bartlett, their attorney in California, did not return a call for comment.

Apple has not yet filed a response to the petition. A call for comment to Apple Inc.’s media relations office Friday was not returned.

A hearing in the case has been scheduled for April 18 in the Superior Court in Santa Clara County.

Wilhelm, who was released on bond, faces a manslaughter charge in connection with Moriah’s death. A jury trial has been scheduled in the 367th District Court in Denton beginning Feb. 27.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.