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To date, people who have attempted to sue social media companies over users' posts have had little success, but that may be about to change.
On May 4, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that could open the door for litigants who think social media companies are liable for injuries stemming from user posts.
In that case, Lemmon v. Snap, Inc., the court reversed a lower court dismissal of a case in which plaintiffs contended that Snapchat bears responsibility for the deaths of three teenagers who died in a 2017 car crash in Wisconsin. Parents of two of the teenagers argued that Snapchat encouraged unsafe driving with a feature that allows users to share videos or photos that show how fast they are moving. In this case, the vehicle was moving at 113 mph when it left the road and slammed into a tree.
Plaintiffs seeking damages from social media companies usually come up against a roadblock called Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states that “no interactive computer service" can be liable for information posted on that service by a user.
In the Wisconsin case, that is what Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw cited in dismissing the case.
In disagreeing and remanding the case for further proceedings, the Ninth Circuit said that giving blanket protection to social media companies simply goes too far. The court ruled that Section 230 does not protect social media companies when they provide features that are so clearly dangerous that the product is essentially defective.
Only six days later, another plaintiff emerged to sue Snapchat for its alleged role in causing a death. In this case, it involved the June 23, 2020, suicide of a 16-year-old boy, Carson Bride, who had apparently been cyberbullied. His mother, Kristin Bride, filed the suit in federal court in the Northern District of California, seeking to form a class on behalf of the more than 90 million U.S. users of Snapchat.
Bride is alleging that her son received anonymous bullying messages through Snapchat for months through an app called YOLO. The boy knew the taunting messages came from people he knew, but the app's design made it impossible for him to know the bullies' identities. The design also meant that if he replied to the taunts, YOLO would make the original message public on his Snapchat page, revealing his humiliation to the world.
The lawsuit, which names Snapchat and two third-party apps, YOLO and LMK, argues that the products violate consumer protection laws by failing to comply with their own terms of service that promise safeguards against cyberbullying.
Will the Ninth Circuit's ruling in the Lemmon case really open the doors for more lawsuits against social media companies? Nobody knows, but there is the possibility that the question could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Lemmon case now goes back to the trial court, and if it rules the same way a Georgia trial court did on a similar remanded case last year involving the speed device, Snapchat will once again be protected by Section 230. But if it doesn't, it could build momentum for more challenges.
“It invites more attempts to test how narrow the Ninth Circuit thinks Section 230 is," Jeff Kosseff, a law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of a book on Section 230 told National Public Radio. “We know in this case the court has determined that 230 does not apply. I'm sure there are plaintiffs' lawyers out there thinking, 'What how about this other type of product flaw?'"