Snapchat can be sued over death of teens in speeding car wreck, court rules

The case could shake up a decades-long precedent shielding tech companies from civil lawsuits

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Wednesday 05 May 2021 20:57
<p>A person clicks on the Snapchat app on their phone.</p>

A person clicks on the Snapchat app on their phone.

Did Snapchat’s speed filter, which attaches a real-time miles-per-hour count to photos posted on the app, cause a group of teen boys to show off for their followers and die in a car accident?

That will be the question before a California court, after an appeals ruling on Tuesday cleared the way for a family to sue the popular photo-sharing app.

The lawsuit comes from an incident in May 2017, in Walworth County, Wisconsin, where three young men were flying down a country road in their car, reaching speeds greater than 120 mph. One of the passengers opened Snapchat, hoping to document their exploits with the speed filter, just before the car crashed into a tree, killing all three of them.

Tuesday’s ruling in California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Snap Inc, Snapchat’s parent company, could be sued in lower court for the design features of the app, which the boys’ parents alleged encouraged them to drive recklessly.

"Snap indisputably designed Snapchat’s reward system and Speed Filter and made those aspects of Snapchat available to users through the Internet," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in the ruling. "This type of claim rests on the premise that manufacturers have a ‘duty to exercise due care in supplying products that do not present unreasonable risk of injury or harm to the public.’"

Snap Inc did not respond to a request for comment.

The app posts a disclaimer not to “Snap and drive” over the speed filter, and its terms of use urge users not to put themselves at risk for the sake of a post.

Lower courts had previously held that the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects social media companies from civil lawsuits based on what users post on the sites, shielded Snap from the car accident lawsuit.

Other federal appeals courts like the 2nd Circuit have also ruled that the CDA shielded the dating app Grindr from a similar claim, that its design itself caused real-world harm. In that case, a man’s ex-boyfriend was impersonating him on the app and sending strangers to his home.

If the disagreement in how courts around the country interpret the law continues, that could be grounds for an eventual Supreme Court showdown to resolve such a notable “circuit split.”

"It’s a triumphant day to see that an internet company can be held responsible for products that are defectively designed," Carrie Goldberg, a victims’ rights lawyer who lead the Grindr lawsuit, told NPR on Tuesday. "The biggest hurdle in personal injury law is getting in front of a jury, and this could lead to that situation for multibillion-dollar technology companies."

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