Judge Rules Apple Must Face Angry MacBook Owners over Butterfly Keyboard Disaster

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Although MacBook users everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief that 2020 finally spelled the end of Apple’s problematic butterfly keyboards, it looks like the company is still going to have to answer for ignoring the problem almost entirely for over four years.

In what can only be chalked up to an obsessive focus on slimming down its MacBooks, Apple switched to a thinner butterfly keyboard design back in 2015 with the relatively short-lived 12-inch MacBook. It wasn’t long until the new keyboard found its way into Apple’s entire MacBook lineup, from the 13-inch MacBook Air to the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

As clever as the new design seemed — it allowed Apple to reduce the thickness of its MacBooks by up to 40 percent — it was plagued by failures.

Many users found keys sticking and becoming non-responsive, often within only a few weeks of purchasing a new MacBook, and while not everybody was affected, it was a large enough group to create a furor that should have gotten Apple’s attention.

In fact, by early 2018, angry MacBook owners had begun petitioning Apple to do something about the problem, collecting thousands of signatures from those affected. Several journalists and bloggers also began weighing in with some pretty harsh criticism, with popular Apple supporters like John Gruber calling it “one of the biggest design screwups in Apple history,” and Marco Arment describing it as “fatally unreliable.”

It wasn’t long after those first petitions that Apple found itself hit with a class-action lawsuit over the issue. The suit alleged that not only was the keyboard “prone to failure,” but that Apple had failed to disclose the problem to customers even after it should have been very obviously aware of it.

Even in the midst of all of this, Apple remained dead quiet. Apple support personnel dealt with keyboard problems on a case-by-case basis, but neither Apple nor its employees would acknowledge that any of this was part of a larger problem.

There was some evidence that Apple was quietly working to tweak the butterfly keyboard design in later MacBook models, but none of these adjustments did much to actually resolve the problem. Finally, in early 2019 Apple acknowledged the issue, with a rare apology to customers and an offer of free priority repairs for anybody experiencing the problem.

In a darkly ironic twist, however, Apple continued releasing new MacBooks with the beleaguered keyboard design throughout 2019, although at least it made it clear that it would continue offering free repairs for anybody who had problems.

To be fair, Apple likely already had some of these MacBooks in the pipeline, making it difficult, if not impossible, to suddenly change the keyboard being used in them. By late 2019, however, Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro had finally ditched the butterfly keyboard, and we saw the first reports that it was going away for good by early 2020.

Facing the Music

Shortly after it acknowledged the issue back in 2019, Apple pushed for the class action lawsuit to be dismissed entirely. However, while the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Edward J. Davila conceded that Apple wasn’t obligated to offer free warranty repairs, he refused to dismiss claims that Apple had committed fraud by failing to disclose the problem to potential customers.

One of Apple’s original arguments back in early 2019 was that the product warranty only covered defects in manufacturing and not flaws in design, but that despite this it had voluntarily offered free repairs for MacBook owners under its Keyboard Service Program. On this point, Judge Davila agreed that Apple had not violated any covenants of good faith and fair dealing, acts concerning warranties, or the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act.

However, Judge Davila rejected Apple’s argument that it did not have a duty to make the keyboard defects known, stating that “a reasonable consumer would deem these alleged facts to be important when choosing to purchase a laptop computer.”

The judge also ruled that the plaintiffs had provided enough information to demonstrate that Apple knew about the problems with the butterfly keyboard, and that many customers may have avoided purchasing a MacBook had they known of the existence of the flaw.

Later in 2019, however, Judge Davila revised his earlier ruling, adding that Apple could actually be held responsible for failing to provide an effective fix. While Apple was under no obligation to fix the defective keyboards, in choosing to do so it could be reasonably expected to do more than simply replace a defective keyboard with another identical version that would potentially have the same defect.

‘Lipstick on a Pig’

Naturally, Apple’s battalion of lawyers continued in their fight against the case, switching to the tactic of trying to prevent it from getting class action certification.

As reported by The Verge, Apple argued that it wasn’t appropriate for a single class action to cover all the versions of the butterfly keyboard Apple had introduced over the four-year period that it used the design. Since at least three different generations of butterfly keyboards had been produced, any lawsuit brought would have to focus on problems with only one specific version, Apple argued.

However, the plaintiffs argued that regardless of the version, all the butterfly keyboards suffered from the same fundamental problem — and that Apple was very aware of this.

The lawsuit filing actually cites an internal communication from an Apple executive, who said of the attempts to fix the butterfly keyboard that “no matter how much lipstick you try to put on this pig … it’s still ugly.”

Judge Davila agreed with the arguments put forth by the plaintiffs, certifying the case with seven subclasses earlier this month, although the order remained sealed until late last week.

The class action suit encompasses anybody who purchased a MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro with a butterfly keyboard in California, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington, or Michigan. More specifically, this would mean MacBooks made between 2015 and 2017, MacBook Pros from 2016 to 2019, and the 2018 and 2019 MacBook Air.

The plaintiffs allege that Apple violated multiple laws across the seven states, including California’s Unfair Competition Law, the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, and the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.

They haven’t yet asked for a nationwide certification, so the case appeared to be focused on those seven states, although the law firm behind the suit is asking for input from any U.S. buyer of an affected MacBook.

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