Judge Makes Controversial Ruling In Snapchat Fentanyl Case

A Los Angeles judge has decided to allow a lawsuit against Snapchat for a series of drug overdoses involving fentanyl to proceed.

The decision may be seen as controversial with regard to Snapchat's potential protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms for liability from user-generated content -- in this case, drug deals.

Filed in 2022, the lawsuit alleges that executives at Snap were aware that some of Snapchat's features, like disappearing messages, were facilitating optimal conditions for the sale of illegal narcotics, especially targeting younger users.

The suit was filed by a group of family members with children and teens who overdosed on the lethal narcotic fentanyl, which they bought on Snapchat.

“Snap knew that its product features were being used by drug dealers to sell controlled substances to minors,” said Matthew P. Bergman, the founder of Social Media Victims Law Center, the firm representing the families.



Snapchat responded, stating that “the plaintiff's allegations are both legally and factually flawed and will continue to defend that position in court.” The company also said  it is working with law enforcement to combat drug dealing on its platform.

Snap requested that the case be dismissed due to its perceived protection under Section 230, arguing that California courts and the Ninth Circuit have previously maintained the principle that immunity be applied to communications about illegal drug sales and their consequences.

“The harm,” Snap's lawyers said, “flows from third-party content that was exchanged by third parties on the defendant's social media platform,” which the company has little control over.

After dismissing four counts against Snap, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff overruled the company's efforts to throw out more than 10 other counts, including wrongful death and negligence.

Judge Riff did not believe that Section 230 granted full protection of Snap, stating that the law has a “defective” and “negligent” design.

“If Congress had intended to immunize all interactive computer services from liabilities 'based on' third-party content, there are straightforward elocutions to express that intention. But that is neither what Congress did nor what Congress could have done consistent with the policy statements in subdivision (b) of Section 230.

Instead, "Congress chose to invoke words of art drawn from common law defamation-liability distinctions between ‘publishers’ and ‘speakers,’ on the one hand, and, apparently, 'distributors' on the other,” Judge Riff said.

Judge Riff thinks the case goes beyond content, and instead has to do more with Snap's failure to warn users about the drug-related content being posted on the platform, suggesting negligence.

“The harm arose from a non-obvious danger, namely, the presence of fentanyl in the drugs purchased by the minors,” Judge Riff said. “The SAC does not allege an obvious danger for which no warning is required.”

Moving forward, the ruling is likely to prove controversial as it points out potential ambiguity in Section 230 as well as the potential legitimacy of lawsuits filed against online platforms that don’t record every instance of communication, harmful or not.

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