Apple Sued over iPod Hearing Loss Claims

A lawsuit filed this week in San Jose federal court (PDF) on behalf of John Kiel Patterson of Louisiana alleges Apple’s now-ubiquitous iPod music players are “inherently defective in design and are not sufficiently adorned with adequate warnings regarding the likelihood of hearing loss.” The suit does not say whether Patterson personally suffered hearing loss from an iPod, but he is pursuing certification of his lawsuit as a class action, and sees unspecified damages and changes to the iPod’s design to make them easier on users’ hearing.

According to the complaint, audio output on Apple’s iPod players can be as much as 130 decibels, a sound level widely recognized as the “threshold of pain,” or the point at which a sound is so loud near the ear that it causes physical damage. (By way of comparison, most professionally-run rock music venues cap their systems at 110 to 115 db, which is still plenty loud enough to induce hearing damage over the course of a show. A screaming child typically clocks in at 90 to 100 db, and a jet engine at take-off is generally around 120 db.)

The lawsuit claims studies show hearing loss may occur in as little as 28 seconds of exposure to sounds at 115 db, and the 130 db level is certainly far in excess of sound levels permitted by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for any length of unprotected exposure. The suit also alleges that Apple’s earbuds have a defective design which does not adequately block background noise, in turn causing the user to turn up the iPod.

The suit also notes Apple altered software for iPods sold in Europe to limiting audio output after France imposed a 100 db limit on personal listening devices. The suit demands Apple modify the software used on all iPods to limit the audio output level to 100 db.

The suit comes on the heels of warnings of hearing loss from music industry notables such as rock legend Pete Townshend, who claims his well-known hearing loss doesn’t stem so much from The Who’s record-setting live concert volume levels but from countless hours using high-volume headphones. Critics have also noted the long battery life of digital music players