Appeals Court Says Families Of Car Crash Victims Can Continue To Sue Snapchat Over Its 'Speed Filter'
from the no-immunity-but-perhaps-no-legal-responsibility-either dept
A few years ago, the Georgia Court of Appeals kept a lawsuit alive against Snapchat, brought by the parents of a victim of a car crash — one supposedly encouraged by Snapchat’s “speed filter.” No Section 230 immunity was extended to Snapchat, which only made the filter available, but did not actually participate (other than as another passenger) in the reckless driving that resulted in the accident that left another driver permanently brain damaged.
Removing this case to federal court most likely would not have helped. Another lawsuit against Snapchat over its “speed filter” has been allowed to move forward by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. (via Ars Technica)
This case involves another tragic car accident and the use of Snap’s app and “speed filter.” From the decision [PDF]:
According to the Parents’ amended complaint, Jason Davis (age 17), Hunter Morby (age 17), and Landen Brown (age 20) were driving down Cranberry Road in Walworth County, Wisconsin at around 7:00 p.m. on May 28, 2017. Jason sat behind the wheel, Landen occupied the front passenger seat, and Hunter rode in the back seat. At some point during their drive, the boys’ car began to speed as fast as 123 MPH. They sped along at these high speeds for several minutes, before they eventually ran off the road at approximately 113 MPH and crashed into a tree. Tragically, their car burst into flames, and all three boys died.
One of the people in the car opened Snapchat and enabled the “speed filter” minutes before the fatal accident. According to the allegations, a number of Snapchat users believed (incorrectly) Snapchat would reward them (the ruling doesn’t specify with what) for exceeding 100 mph. That’s where the allegations tie Snapchat to reckless driving by end users. It isn’t much, but it’s apparently enough to allow the lawsuit to move forward.
And it’s these specific allegations that allow the lawsuit to avoid the expected Section 230 immunity defense. The plaintiffs don’t claim Snapchat isn’t a publisher of third-party content. They don’t even argue this lawsuit centers on the “speed filter” post made shortly before the accident. Instead, they argue the app itself — with its attendant (but now removed) “speed filter” — is negligently-designed, leading directly to the tragedies at the center of this suit.
It is thus apparent that the Parents’ amended complaint does not seek to hold Snap liable for its conduct as a publisher or speaker. Their negligent design lawsuit treats Snap as a products manufacturer, accusing it of negligently designing a product (Snapchat) with a defect (the interplay between Snapchat’s reward system and the Speed Filter). Thus, the duty that Snap allegedly violated “springs from” its distinct capacity as a product designer. Barnes, 570 F.3d at 1107. This is further evidenced by the fact that Snap could have satisfied its “alleged obligation”—to take reasonable measures to design a product more useful than it was foreseeably dangerous—without altering the content that Snapchat’s users generate.
Because of that, the only discussion of Section 230 is to explain why it’s not an appropriate defense in this case.
That Snap allows its users to transmit user-generated content to one another does not detract from the fact that the Parents seek to hold Snap liable for its role in violating its distinct duty to design a reasonably safe product.
The Ninth Circuit says the filter is first-party content and it’s Snapchat’s software that’s the problem.
Snap indisputably designed Snapchat’s reward system and Speed Filter and made those aspects of Snapchat available to users through the internet.
The lawsuit heads back down to the district level, where the lower court originally dismissed this case on Section 230 grounds. The plaintiffs will get another chance to amend their lawsuit to fully flesh out arguments — namely, Snapchat’s allegedly-negligent design — that weren’t fully addressed the first time around.
There’s a chance another round of litigation may result in a win for Snapchat. The plaintiffs still need to fully connect Snapchat to the reckless driving committed by the victims of the car crash. It may not be enough to simply say the presence of a “speed filter” is responsible for this tragic outcome. After all, Snapchat has millions of users and presumably a majority of those managed to refrain from driving recklessly even with the supposed incentive of being rewarded before Snap removed the “speed filter” option.