There are currently many, many people trying to sue the pants off Apple. But commercial law experts predict that if the company ends up on trial, it may come out on top.
Before we get too deep into this, it’s important to understand the backstory: On Dec. 20, Apple confirmed a rumor that it does, in fact, slow down iPhones to prevent unexpected shutdowns from old, unstable batteries.
Two days later, lawsuits were filed in California and Illinois. Over the next few weeks, civil and criminal charges piled on, from Israel, Europe, Asia, New York, California, and Texas. 9to5Mac reports that the company faces over 15 class-action lawsuits as of today.
Some of the lawsuits claim that the company’s move was deceptive to customers. Others claim that owners of the old phones suffered economic damages as a result. The crux is that many customers believe Apple is tricking customers into prematurely buying new iPhones, when a cheaper battery replacement could have made their old phones last much longer.
The company has apologized, but the lawsuits, as well as criminal charges, are still coming with no end in sight. We asked civil and commercial lawyers just how much danger Apple is in. Here’s what they had to say.
According to Justin T. Kelton, a Brooklyn-based lawyer specializing in commercial litigation, the courts and juries involved in these disputes will need to resolve two broad questions: whether Apple intentionally sold customers flawed phones, and whether the the company deceived its customers. At the core of both questions is Apple’s intent.
This is why at least some judges are unlikely to dismiss the suits, according to Houston commercial litigator Phil Griffis.
“Apple has admitted to putting out software updates that changed the phones’ power usage patterns,” Griffis told Mashable. “The question is, what was the motive?… We really won’t know that until Apple releases its documents and emails discussing the real reasons for the update.”
But when the company actually appears in court, there are a few things the plaintiffs will need to prove — and that’s going to be very difficult, according to Chicago attorney and board member of the International Technology Law Association, Charles Lee Mudd Jr.
Primarily, the plaintiffs will have to demonstrate that a significant number of consumers bought new phones purely because of the slowed speed. This will be logistically difficult to prove — they’ll need to deduce exactly how much slowdown in the phones in question was caused by Apple’s features (rather than other factors), and prove it was that specific performance decrease that drove customers to replace their devices.
They will also need to demonstrate that customers would have chosen to replace their iPhone batteries to resolve the issue, instead of buying a new phone. Mudd is skeptical that this charge will hold up.
“The replacement of an iPhone battery — for better or for worse — is not an easy process,” Mudd told Mashable. “I am not sure many people would have replaced the batteries knowing it would resolve the issue.”
Third, the plaintiffs will need to prove that the slowdown feature was implemented without customers’ consent. Mudd believes this case is weak as well — he noted that individuals are not forced to update to the newest iOS, and that in doing so, they agree to Apple’s terms and conditions.
Finally, the plaintiffs will need to show that Apple intended to make the iPhones worse, while Apple has reasonably argued that its intention was to make the phones better.
“The iOS update does what Apple wants it to do,” Mudd said. “That is, it slows down the speed of certain iPhones that have old batteries to prevent shutdowns or more significant performance anomalies arising from a deteriorated battery.”
But even if Apple wins in court, it’s unlikely to get off scotch-free. The company will still face legal costs and exposure to class settlements, as well as, perhaps more perniciously, potential damage to its public image.
Apple has long benefitted from its image as a socially conscious and consumer-friendly company. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, often speaks publicly about social issues, and has been a proponent of transparency regarding diversity and inclusivity within the company. And at its most recent keynote, the company announced a number of initiatives to better connect with customers, including branding its new retail stores as “Town Squares” featuring workshops and gatherings for the public, and meeting rooms for the company to connect with local businesses and investors.
“If Apple becomes known as a company that secretly and detrimentally manipulates their products years after consumers purchased them, it could have a substantial effect on the way the company is viewed,” said Kelton.
Should other companies be afraid? Not if they’re being honest with their customers.
“If companies are operating reasonably, transparently, and fairly, they should not fear regulation,” Kelton says.
But these suits should serve as a wake-up call, says Mudd, to any companies that may be engaging in deceptive practices. While software innovation is essential, customers want to know what’s going on.
“Companies that seek to deceive consumers and betray their trust should be worried,” Mudd says. “A bad actor may not be caught today, but no dynasty exists forever.”