Richard Drew / AP
Three young men rode in a car in Walworth County, Wisk. In May 2017. They were able to drive at high speeds on a long road lined with cornfields – and share their adventures on social media.
With the 17-year-old accelerating behind the wheel to 123 mph, a passenger unlocked Snapchat.
His parents say their son wanted to capture the experience using one of the app’s filters that documented the speed of real life, in hopes of sharing and interest from followers on the messaging app.
This was one of the last things the trio did before veering off the road and crashing into a tree, killing them all.
Is Snapchat partly to blame? The boys’ parents think so. In a surprise decision on Tuesday, a federal appeals court issued agreed.
The ruling, by a panel of three judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals’s Ninth Circuit, sparked a heated debate among legal observers about the future of a decades-old law that protects tech companies from civil lawsuits.
Personal injury lawyer: ‘It’s a victorious day’
The boys’ parents filed a lawsuit against Snap, Inc. , The manufacturer, Snapchat, after the tragedy. They claimed that the company bore some responsibility. The district court has responded to the way courts usually act when a tech platform is sued in a civil suit: by dismissing the case. The judge cited the blanket immunity enjoyed by social media companies under Article 230 of the Communications Etiquette Law.
The law provides technology companies with legal immunity from defamation cases and other civil lawsuits in relation to what people post on the sites, regardless of how harmful it is.
But the Court of Appeal Reflection, bounce, inversion Paving the way to circumvent the blanket law, saying it doesn’t apply because this case isn’t about what someone posted on Snapchat, it’s about designing the app itself.
Parents claim that Snapchat’s speed filter lures youngsters by driving at amazing speeds. The Federal Court said Snap should be treated like any other company making a product that could injure or harm consumers.
Judge Kim McLean-Wardlaw wrote to the court: “Snap has indisputably designed the Snapchat rewards system and speed filter and made those aspects of Snapchat available to users over the Internet.” “This type of claim is based on the premise that manufacturers are obligated to exercise due diligence in supplying products that do not pose an unreasonable risk of injury or harm to the public.”
Wardlaw continued that “CDA immunity”, referring to Article 230, “is not available in this case.”
Brought in by Carrie Goldberg, a victim rights attorney and online abuse specialist, A. A similar case for product liability Against the dating app Grindr but a federal appeal, 2nd U.S. Appeals Chamber, dismissed him on the grounds of Section 230.
Seeing a different federal appeals court going in the opposite direction, she said, could create an opportunity for more cases to challenge tech companies about a flawed platform design that leads to anticipated damage.
“It is a triumphant day to see that the internet company can take responsibility for products that are designed defectively,” Goldberg said in an interview. “The biggest hurdle in personal injury law is jury access, and this could lead to this situation for technology companies valued at billions of dollars.”
But legal experts who study speech online have been more skeptical, saying it could lead to more lawsuits trying to weaken Article 230, but the chance of success remains slim.
“It calls for more attempts to test how narrowly the Ninth Circuit thinks Section 230, but that may be the case,” said Geoff Kosiv, a law professor at the United States Naval Academy and author of a book on Section 230. In this case, the court decided that 230 does not apply. I’m sure a plaintiff attorney out there is thinking, “Well, what about this other kind of product defect?”
Eric Goldman, Professor of Law at Santa Clara University who also studies technology law, pointed to A similar case against Snap that occurred in state courts in Georgia.
In this case, the Court of Appeals found that Snap could be sued for damage caused by the speed filter.
But when the trial court re-examined the case, it found that Snap could not be held responsible for someone misusing a product. (The messaging app applies a “DO NOT BLOCK DRIVE” warning to the filter.)
A Snap spokeswoman declined to comment.
Increased likelihood of a Supreme Court ruling
The parents ’case is now back in the court of first instance. If things go the same way as the Georgia case, Snapchat will avoid any legal liability. But if the first instance court agrees to hold Snap accountable, that could be important, Goldman says.
“So we are now unclear about the impact of this opinion,” he said.
The Ninth Circuit has issued several opinions that strongly support technology companies’ retention of blanket legal immunity, he notes, saying now that there is a back and forth in Section 230, the legal landscape is complex.
He said, “They do not agree with themselves.” As a result, there are many wounds in the jurisprudence of the Ninth Circle. “
In a few cases that showed Section 230 was not a legal shield from a civil lawsuit, he said the lower courts eventually sided with the tech companies.
“I don’t think this opinion will actually open up Pandora’s box to say, ‘You can sue a website for how it’s designed in all circumstances,'” Goldman said.
The reason, Goldman says, is that the Ninth Circuit basically ruled that Snap being a publisher was unrelated to the claim that the messaging app had stimulated malicious activity.
However, someone is more likely to use Snapchat’s speed filter only if they intend to get their posts published.
This is important because under Section 230, Snapchat cannot be held responsible (or treated as a “publisher or spokesperson”) for what any user posts on the platforms.
“The Ninth Circle goes a really thin line on the distinction between the things people do to create content and the fact that content is only important because it gets published,” said Goldman.
For Kosseff, the Ninth Circuit now being split with the Second Circuit over a possible alternative solution to holding technology companies accountable could make it more likely that the US Supreme Court will rule on the matter, which is at least one thing in court, Clarence Thomas, show up Eager to do.
“This increases the chances of the Supreme Court hearing the Article 230 case,” Kosiv said. “We have a growing difference in how the courts deal with this kind of challenge.”