Summary Judgment Ends Consumers’ iPhone Radiation Suit

Apple, Inc. has been granted summary judgment in a case challenging the tech giant’s flagship iPhone products’ compliance with radiofrequency (RF) radiation regulations. Last week, a San Francisco federal court held that the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) RF radiation exposure rules preempted the plaintiffs’ tort and consumer-fraud claims. 

The order found that the agency’s equipment-authorization scheme represented an intentional decision to “establish uniform technical standards embodying a careful balance between safety and efficiency.”

The order explained that, like other smartphones, Apple phones rely on radiofrequency electromagnetic waves to send and receive signals. The oscillation of electrical charges in the phone antennas generate RF radiation. In turn, “the closer to the body the phone remained while in use, the more RF radiation a user would get.” At high levels, RF radiation can cause burns and other injuries. At lower levels, the effects are controverted, but may cause an “increased risk of cancer, cellular stress, structural and functional changes to the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, genetic damage, and neurological disorders.”

The plaintiffs sought to hold Apple responsible for selling mobile phones that did not comply with FCC RF radiation emission standards. They argued that Apple failed to disclose that using phones would expose users to RF radiation levels greater than the federal limit of 1.6 W/kg, or risks attendant to that exposure. For relief, they requested medical monitoring.

Before considering the parties’ arguments, Judge William Alsup described the case’s extensive procedural history. The plaintiffs, purchasers of nine different iPhone models, filed their first amended and consolidated complaint on Dec. 5, 2019. The complaint relied heavily on a Chicago Tribune story that spurred the FCC to investigate Apple’s compliance.

Apple then sought dismissal. At the hearing, matters outside Apple’s moving papers were presented without sufficient justification. Thus, the court converted the motion into one for summary judgment and discovery opened immediately.  

Judge Alsup invited the FCC to weigh in as amicus curiae concerning whether its regulations preempted the plaintiffs’ claims. The FCC inclined and expressed its view that its regulations indeed displaced them. 

Once again, Apple moved for summary judgment. Following a hearing, the court ordered Apple to produce all communications it had with the FCC in connection with the Chicago Tribune story. 

In the instant order, the court noted that the plaintiffs “all but abandon any reliance on what communications Apple did produce and instead rehash arguments made in their briefs. The single document plaintiffs found relevant demonstrated, in that instance, that Apple, not the FCC, bore responsibility for its disclosures to consumers in their user manuals.”

The court first considered the RF radiation regulations’ history, framework, and the FCC’s views thereof. In its review of the rules’ statutory bases, the court explained that Congress and the FCC intended them to be comprehensive. The court held that the plaintiffs’ claims would have juries administer the FCC’s regulations creating an “obstacle to the regulations’ own objectives.”

In addition, the court noted that Apple’s iPhones have “demonstrated compliance with its exposure limits not once but twice.” It reasoned that permitting a federal jury to “second guess” the FCC’s determinations “would interfere with the balance struck in the equipment-authorization program.” 

Thus, the court held, “the federal regulations must displace plaintiffs’ claims.” Over the plaintiffs’ arguments that consumers would be left without remedy, the court remarked that in addition to agency enforcement actions, initiated by complaints filed with the FCC, the plaintiffs “may also challenge agency rulemaking directly.” The court then entered judgment for Apple and denied the pending discovery disputes as moot.

The plaintiffs are represented by Andrus Anderson and Fegan Scott, and Apple by Dechert.