Monday, September 10, 2012

Cracked iPhone doesn't support consumer claims

Williamson v. Apple, Inc., 2012 WL 3835104 (N.D. Cal.)

Full disclosure: My iPhone’s glass cracked when I had it in a regular case.  I now have it wrapped in a hard shell that is itself covered with rubber.  The result is thick, and I haven’t looked at the back of the phone recently to see if it has still developed cracks, but I live in hope.  The iPhone arguably has more aesthetic than utilitarian functionality; see also the antenna that didn’t work without a bumper.

Anyway, Williamson’s iPhone glass cracked when it fell off a chair a few days after he got it.  He alleged that he was one of many who suffered from the more-fragile-than-expected glass.  The intro video from Steve Jobs “called attention” to the glass paneling and said that Apple used glass on the “front and back for optical quality and scratch resistance.”  Jonathan Ive, Apple's Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, also referred to the iPhone 4’s glass housing as “comparable in strength to sapphire crystal” and 30 times harder than plastic. A video demonstration showed a portion of the glass used on the iPhone 4 being bent up to 30 degrees without cracking or breaking.  In marketing, Apple also described the glass as “the same type of glass used in the windshields of helicopters and high-speed trains” and as “20 times stiffer and 30 times harder than plastic ... ultradurable and more scratch resistant than ever.”  Its ads showed the phone being used without a protective cover.  (P.S.: don’t do that.)  Williamson alleged that many, many consumers found that the glass was quickly scarred and broken by normal, foreseeable use.  One insurer’s study found that the iPhone 4’s glass broke at an 82% higher rate than a prior iPhone version.  Replacements cost $199 (broken housing) or $29 (cracked panel).

Williamson alleged that he wouldn’t have bought the iPhone 4 if he’d known that the housing was more susceptible to cracking during normal and foreseeable use than earlier versions.  He brought warranty claims and the usual California claims.

Apple first challenged causation: the damage was caused by the drop to the floor.  The district court didn’t have much patience for that.  Williamson alleged that Apple’s misrepresentations and omissions caused him to buy a phone he wouldn’t otherwise have bought; the fall from the chair caused him to realize that he might have been misled.  The economic loss was the unwarranted purchase, not the physical damage to the phone.

Apple fared better arguing that its representations were nonactionable puffery.  Jobs’ statements that glass was used “front and back for optical quality and scratch resistance” was “no more than a description of the phone,” not a specific commentary about durability that could mislead a reasonable consumer.  Likewise, the Ive statements about the comparison to sapphire crystal and “30 times harder than plastic” weren’t alleged to be misdiscriptions of the glass, assuming they were specific enough to be non-puffery.  (Why wouldn’t 30x harder be specific?)  Similarly, Williamson didn’t allege that the demonstration of the glass flexing was false.  (What about misleading?)  He didn’t allege that he specifically relied on the Ive statements or the video clearly enough to satisfy Rule 9(b).

In addition, the court rejected the argument that ads showing use of the iPhone 4 wihtout a cover constituted an affirmative representation of durability.  “A ‘reasonable consumer’ viewing a commercial showing the iPhone 4 in use as a phone, but without a cover, would not be misled to believe that the iPhone 4 could withstand any particular level of impact if the phone was dropped.”  (Regardless of the law, I feel like those ads are like showing drivers not using seatbelts as they execute high-speed turns on a closed course—there really should be some sort of “don’t try this at home!” warning.)  The ads had nothing to do with durability—there were no allegations that any showed a phone being dropped, unscathed.

The representations, as a whole, wouldn’t lead a reasonable consumer to believe that the glass was indestructible (not, I think, what plaintiff alleged, which was about ordinary use) or drop-proof because “it is a well-known fact of life that glass can break under impact, even glass that has been reinforced.”  It’s routine to encounter shattered windows, cracked windshields, and chipped smartphone screens.  The marketing described in the complaint, which didn’t directly cover dropped phones, wouldn’t erase those images from the collective experience to allow a reasonable consumer to expect that the glass couldn’t break if dropped.  (Again, this doesn’t seem quite what plaintiff alleged: as I understand it, the claim is that the iPhone was worse on this front than a reasonable consumer would expect.  It’s not unexpected to encounter shattered windows, but a window that shatters when you lean against it would be different.)

Anyway, the same problems attended the claims framed as actionable omissions.  Nowhere did Apple allegedly say that the iPhone 4 was resistant to normal wear and tear, wouldn’t break or crack under normal use, or might not be damaged if dropped.  So the alleged omissions didn’t contradict any affirmative statements, and Williamson didn’t sufficiently plead facts showing a duty to disclose; among other things, he didn’t plead what was actually known to Apple except in conclusory fashion.  Alleged reports by unidentified consumers with uncertain timing weren’t enough. 

As for the warranty claims, Apple didn’t dispute that defects in the glass could be covered by the warranty under specified circumstances.  But Williamson didn’t successfully plead that the warranty promised damage resistance.  “To the contrary, the fact that a warranty covering the glass even exists suggests that Apple never made or reasonably could make such a representation.”  Also, Williamson didn’t identify the purported defect in the glass, other than to say it broke when the phone fell.  But glass can break when it’s dropped, so something more was required to allege a defect.

On Williamson’s claim for implied warranty of merchantability, he argued that the phone wasn’t “fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used.”  But the allegation that the glass broke easily “has nothing to do with the iPhone 4's intended use as a smartphone, which the court safely presumes includes functions like making and receiving calls, sending and receiving text messages, or allowing for the use of mobile applications.”  The court was unwilling to conclude that an “ordinary purpose” of a phone is to be dropped to the ground.  This theory of liability would mean that the phone wasn’t merchantable unless it was “completely resistant” to accidental breakage or damage, and that was silly.  (I agree, which is why it doesn’t seem to me that plaintiff was making that claim.  Ordinarily resistant, though, would be a different matter, especially since it’s hard to make and receive calls when there’s a piece of glass poking at you, which I can again confirm from personal experience.)

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