Snapchat Must Face Claim That Speed Filter Caused Fatal Car Crash

Family members of two passengers killed in a high-speed car crash can proceed with a lawsuit against Snapchat over its “speed filter” overlay, which enabled users to post photos showing how fast their car was traveling.

The decision, issued last week by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald in the Central District of California, allows the family members to attempt to prove that Snap designed its filter in a way that encouraged users to drive too fast.

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 to document that the car was going 123 miles per hour.

The parents also alleged that the company “rewards” users “who consume Snapchat in excessive and dangerous ways,” such as with “trophies, streaks and social recognition.”

Snap didn't give “rewards” to people who document themselves speeding, but the parents said Snap's users didn't realize how the rewards system works.

The company discontinued the speed filter last year.

Snap initially argued the lawsuit should be dismissed for several reasons, including that it did not cause the car crash.

The company also said it was immune from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers from lawsuits over users' posts.

Fitzgerald dismissed the parents' lawsuit in 2020, on the grounds that Snapchat was protected by Section 230.

Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and reinstated the parent's complaint.

The appellate judges said the claims didn't stem from users' content, but focused on Snap's design of its speed filter, writing that the 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.”

After that decision came out, Snap again asked Fitzgerald to throw out the case. The company reiterated its earlier arguments -- including that even if the allegations in the complaint were true, the speed filter didn't encourage speeding or cause the crash.

Fitzgerald rejected those arguments, writing that if the allegations were proven true, they could establish that Snap played a role in causing the crash.

“The basic design of the speed filter itself appears to encourage reckless driving,” he wrote. “There is realistically no purpose for the speed filter other than to encourage users to travel at high speeds and record themselves doing so.”

He added: “The causal connection between the speed filter and the speeding accident is strong given that the accident occurred while the plaintiffs were using the speed filter for the exact purpose for which it appears to have been designed: to record the user traveling at excessive speeds.”

This lawsuit isn't the only one Snapchat faces over the speed filter. The company was also sued in Georgia after a driver who was using the feature rear-ended another car and injured that car's driver.

Three weeks ago, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the injured driver in that case could sue Snapchat over the speed filter's design.

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