By Bryan Jung
Apple is facing a federal class-action lawsuit in New York over claims that a blood oxygen reader app on the Apple Watch yielded inaccurate results for minorities.
Alex Morales, a New York resident, filed the lawsuit on behalf of several customers against the tech giant on Dec. 24, alleging that the Apple Watch’s blood oximeter had a “racial bias” against dark-skinned individuals.
The Blood Oxygen app, which is available on Apple Watch Series 6 onwards, has the ability to “measure the oxygen level of your blood on-demand directly from your wrist, providing you with insights into your overall wellness,” according to Apple.
Morales v. Apple Inc. was filed in the Southern District of New York by Sheehan & Associates on behalf of Morales and other plaintiffs.
The lead plaintiff allegedly believed that the Apple Watch, which he purchased between 2020 and 2021, was supposed to “measure blood oxygen levels, and he believed it did this without regard to skin tone” and “would not have purchased” or “paid as much” for the item had he known otherwise.
He claims that “as a result of the false and misleading representations, the product is sold at a premium price, approximately no less than $400, excluding tax and sales.”
The complaint alleged that Apple violated several New York state and federal laws that prohibit “deceptive business practices,” and accused the tech giant of unjustly enriching itself by misrepresenting its product’s capabilities.
Lawsuit Alleges That Apple Misled Minority Customers
Morales wants his class action to cover all New Yorkers who purchased the Apple Watch during the statute of limitations and is seeking a jury trial.
He also requested that Apple Watch buyers in North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Utah join in his lawsuit.
The New York-based plaintiff asked that the federal court be certified as the representative for the class actions against Apple and was seeking “monetary, statutory, and/or punitive damages and interest; costs and expenses, including reasonable attorney and expert fees; and other and further relief as the court deems just and proper.”
Morales further alleged that during the pandemic, medical researchers “confirmed the clinical significance of racial bias of pulse oximetry” based on patients’ records.
Plaintiff’s Attorney Points to Various Medical Studies
A 2020 study by University of Michigan Hospital found that in one analysis that 11.7 percent of black patients registered higher than accurate oxygen levels on pulse oximeters compared to 3.6 percent of white patients, reported USA TODAY.
The oxygen reading devices were critical in making critical are decisions for patients at the height of the pandemic, but were found to be less effective on people with darker skin.
The Food and Drug Administration recently initiated a review of the pulse oximeter technology in November, with a goal to make it effective on all skin tones.
“For decades, there have been reports that such devices were significantly less accurate in measuring blood oxygen levels based on skin color,” read the claims.
“The ‘real world significance’ of this bias lay unaddressed until the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, which converged with a greater awareness of structural racism which exists in many aspects of society,” the lawsuit continued.
Morales contends that Apple defrauded consumers by marketing the smartwatch without disclosing the limitations on skin tone.
Sheehan, a New York attorney, is known as a prolific filer of at least 400 consumer class-action suits.
“Yes, you’re not getting this at a drugstore or a medical goods store,” Sheehan told USA TODAY on Dec. 27
“Nonetheless, if a product is presented as a feature that is described as a … blood oxygen monitor, you will expect that it will function without respect to a person’s skin color.”
He told USA TODAY that he expected Apple to argue that it had warned consumers that the health app was not intended for medical use.
Apple Claims That the App Was Never Intended for Medical Use
Apple did note on its website that the Blood Oxygen app is “only designed for general fitness and wellness purposes” and that “Blood Oxygen app measurements are not intended for medical use, including self-diagnosis or consultation with a doctor.”
It is unknown whether Apple uses the same technology as the standard pulse oximeter.
The Blood Oxygen app is presented on its website as a “breathtaking innovation” that can measure blood oxygen at the wrist, instead of a fingertip as with pulse oximeters.
Apple did write on its website that the blood oxygen reading could be affected by “permanent or temporary changes” to the skin, such as tattoos.
“The ink, pattern, and saturation of some tattoos can block light from the sensor, making it difficult for the Blood Oxygen app to get a measurement,” according to the website.