Snapchat Expected To Face Legal Proceedings Over Fatal Accident
Snapchat has become one of the most popular social apps today among teenagers owing to its fun and engaging features. Nevertheless, since its debut, Snapchat has been facing a lot of disparagement and lawsuits for its "speed filter", one of them being about an Uber driver who collided with an alleged Snap user who was trying to hit a target of 100 miles per hour.
This time round, it seems things just took a turn for the worse for the popular app.
In 2017, Snapchat was blamed for the death of three young men who died in a car crash. The case was dismissed. Recently, the situation escalated with an unexpected turn of events when the courts ruled that the company can be sued for fueling the accident.
The Speed Drive
Jason Davis, 17, and two of his peers, got into a car and drove down a cornfield-lined road in May 2017. Davis accelerated and reached 123 miles per hour, and Landen Brown, one of the passengers, opened his Snapchat application to record the speed in real time using the "speed filter". A short moment after the app clocked him, the car veered off the road and crashed into a nearby tree. Davis, Brown and Hunter Morby, a second passenger, died on the spot, according to court documents.
The parents of Morby and Brown filed a lawsuit in 2019 outlining the circumstances of the crash; they were convinced that the Snapchat app encouraged over-speeding.
The Case Was First Dismissed
According to the parents, Snapchat led many teenagers to believe that they would earn some in-app achievements for doing more than 100 miles per hour. The complainants even cited several news articles that detailed the phenomenon before the accident in a California court. The company countered by saying that it wasn't aware of any such achievement, and that its aim was to provide a tool for its users to post their content.
Michael Fitzgerald, a U.S. District Judge dismissed the case, asserting that the complainants inappropriately sought to hold Snap Inc. responsible as a third-party content publisher on its popular platform. According to the court, the lawsuit was trying to hold the company responsible for a user who was driving dangerously.
The court even referred to the filter as a "speedometer tool", and noted that Snap Inc. had discouraged its users from driving at dangerous speeds.
The Ninth Circuit Reverses the Decision
On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision. The three-judge panel found that the law couldn't apply in this case because the main issue was not about the role of Snapchat as a platform, but the way the app was designed.
Although the Ninth Circuit did not say whether Snapchat was responsible for the accident, it ruled that the company was not protected by the "Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act" that protects websites and mobile applications from lawsuits over what their users post. It asserted that the suit presented a good example of a claim that "doesn't rest on third-party content". The company faced the lawsuit specifically for designing a feature that encouraged dangerous behavior. The courts found that it was clear the lawsuit wasn't meant to hold the company responsible as a publisher.
According to the federal court, Snap Inc. needs to be treated like any other business that creates a product that can harm consumers.
Could Lawsuits Against Multibillion-Dollar Companies Become a Common Occurrence?
A victims' rights lawyer specializing in online abuse filed a similar product liability lawsuit against a popular dating app "Grindr", but the second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the case, citing Section 230. Carrie Goldberg, the lawyer, found it beneficial for federal appeals courts to make divergent decisions as it meant that people could bring more cases challenging tech companies' defective platform design and expect an inimitable review and ruling.
In an interview, she noted that it's always a challenge to make it before a jury in personal injury law. The current situation, in her opinion, could make it more possible to see cases involving large tech corporations.
For a long time, the Ninth Circuit has been facing a lot of criticism for siding with tech companies. Many legal experts note that the courts have issued several opinions that ultimately served to boost the companies' legal immunity. It therefore goes without saying that this ruling could not have come at a better time. Although many people are still skeptical about positive legal outcomes in cases involving giant tech companies, I believe these developments are a step in the right direction.
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