Snapchat must face a lawsuit stemming from a fatal car crash that occurred after a passenger used the company's “speed filter” to document that the automobile was traveling faster than 100 miles per hour, an appellate court ruled Tuesday.
In its decision, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Snapchat's argument that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protected the company from liability for the high-speed car crash.
“Snap does not enjoy immunity from this suit,” Circuit Court Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in an opinion joined by Circuit Judge Carlos Bea and U.S. District Court Judge David Cain, Jr.
The judges added that Snap was being sued over the “predictable consequences” of designing its service to encourage dangerous behavior.
The ruling stems from a 2019 lawsuit brought by the parents of two passengers killed in a car crash -- 17-year-old Hunter Morby and 20-year-old Landen Brown.
The parents alleged that shortly before the accident, Brown had used Snapchat's speed filter overlay to post a photo showing that the car was travelling at 123 miles per hour.
The complaint alleged that the speed filter encouraged users to drive too fast.
“Snap knows or should know that its design has created extreme and addictive behaviors by its largely teenage and young-adult users,” the parents alleged in papers filed in federal court in November of 2019. “Indeed, Snap knowingly or purposefully designed its products to encourage such behaviors.”
The parents added that the company “rewards” users “who consume Snapchat in excessive and dangerous ways,” such as with “trophies, streaks and social recognition.”
Snap doesn't give “rewards” to people who document themselves speeding, but the parents said Snap's users don't realize how the rewards system works.
“Even if Snap does not actually reward its teenage and young-adult users any prizes or rewards or trophies for recording a 100-MPH-Snap, Snap’s users do not know that,” the parents alleged. “Many of them believe that they will be rewarded by recording a 100-MPH or faster Snap, or at the very least, they want to find out if they will be so rewarded and so they drive at excessive speeds to see what will happen.”
Snapchat argued the lawsuit should be dismissed for several reasons, including that it didn't cause the car crash.
The company also said it was immune from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects companies from lawsuits over users' posts.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald in the Central District of California dismissed the parents' lawsuit last year on the grounds that Snapchat was protected by Section 230.
He wrote in his dismissal order that the parents' claim centered on content created by users -- meaning the photos that were posted to the social media service.
“The court cannot ignore the fact that the content itself, the 100-MPH-Snap (or other high-speed Snaps) is at the crux of plaintiffs’ claims,” he wrote. “In other words, despite Plaintiffs’ assertions to the contrary, it appears that plaintiffs are seeking to hold defendant responsible for failing to regulate what the users post through the Speed Filter.”
But the appellate judges made clear in their opinion that they disagreed with Fitzgerald's determination that the lawsuit stemmed from content created by users.
“This case presents a clear example of a claim that simply does not rest on third-party content,” Wardlaw wrote. “The parents’ negligent design claim faults Snap solely for Snapchat’s architecture, contending that the app’s Speed Filter and reward system worked together to encourage users to drive at dangerous speeds.”
Even though the 9th Circuit reinstated the complaint, Snapchat could still ultimately prevail -- as happened in a similar dispute in Georgia. That matter also stemmed from a car crash that was allegedly linked to Snapchat's speed filter.
A Georgia appellate court ruled that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act didn't protect Snapchat from liability for claims that it had negligently designed the speed filter.
A trial judge and appellate court subsequently ruled that Snapchat wasn't liable in the matter because Georgia law doesn't generally require manufacturers “to prevent people from committing torts while misusing a manufacturer’s product.”