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Is an iPhone a “handheld computer”?

Marnie’s iPhone is stolen 

Marnie was waiting to board a ride in a theme park in the United States when his iPhone was taken from his pocket. Marnie claimed $1,279 from his travel insurer for the loss of the iPhone. 

The insurance company offered Marnie $600. The travel insurance policy capped compensation for personal effects, such as lost phones, at $700 and handheld computers at $4,000. The insurance company argued Marnie’s iPhone was a phone. Marnie argued the iPhone was a “handheld computer”. Unable to resolve the dispute, the parties approached FSCL. 


Marnie’s arguments

An iPhone runs the same operating system as an iPad. The insurer classified iPads as “handheld computers”. 

The iPhone was not used as a phone on vacation and was not connected to a cellular network. The particular use(s) put to the iPhone were for gaming, internet and email.

Marnie provided an opinion from a notable computer scientist. The computer scientist argued that the iPhone was a “handheld computer”. The computer scientist defined “computers” as devices that perform “general purpose computation”. The computer scientist supported Marnie’s argument that, to determine whether an iPhone is a “handheld computer”, regard must be had to the particular use(s) put to the iPhone. 


The insurance company’s arguments

The primary function of a device is important. The iPhone’s primary function is as a phone. 

The computer scientist’s “particular use” rationale could be applied absurdly. A laptop with Skype could be considered a phone. Modern fridges, televisions and cars could be considered “computers” as they can carry out “general purpose computation”. 

Computers are capable of programming, whereas an iPhone is a “closed source programme system” which is not capable of programming. 

Marnie deliberately purchased an iPhone for its phone functionality: there are several other devices available in the market that can be used for gaming, internet and email, that do not have phone functionality. 


FSCL’s review 

FSCL noted that:

  • The policy wording’s definition of “handheld computer”, which referred to PDAs (such as Palm Pilots), was outdated. It was drafted before smartphones were commonly available. 
  • A significant number of smartphones available in the market were worth more than $700. 
  • At law, when a term in a contract is ambiguous, the term must be interpreted against the party that drafted it. 

FSCL’s CEO accepted that the iPhone could reasonably be described as a “handheld computer” and recommended that the insurance company settle Marnie’s claim. FSCL’s CEO also recommended that the insurance company should amend its policy wording to state the maximum amount it will pay for smartphones. 



The parties settled the complaint.