Three US youngsters were killed in 2017 when their car, traveling at 113mph (181kmph), flew off a road in southeastern Wisconsin and slammed into a tree. Just before the crash, one of the youths had opened the Speed Filter on Snapchat to record their velocity and share it with others.
On May 4, a US federal appeals court said family members could sue Snap Inc for marketing a product that allegedly encouraged dangerous driving. While the California-based social media platform warns against using the Speed Filter while driving, Snapchat rewards users with trophies and “social recognition” for pictures they post, and according to the suit, many of its users believe the platform will reward them for recording speeds of 100mph (160kmph) or more.
The ruling by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco was a dent in the armour that Snap, Google and other Internet service companies gained in 1996 when Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which protected them from liability for content from others on their websites.
The law spurred growth of the Internet by barring libel suits against social media platforms for posting comments or articles that turned out to be false and defamatory, though it does not apply to content that is itself illegal, like copyright violations. But the appeals court said Snap was not being sued for the content of the youth's message but for a product application that it allegedly knew was used to promote reckless driving.
“The parents seek to hold Snap liable for its role in violating its distinct duty to design a reasonably safe product,” Judge Kim Wardlaw said in a 3-0 ruling reinstating a suit that a federal judge had dismissed. The parents, she said, are “contending that the app’s Speed Filter and reward system worked together to encourage users to drive at dangerous speeds”, and can try to prove their case in court.
Naveen Ramachandrappa, a lawyer for the parents, praised the court for rejecting “Snap’s attempt to hide behind the Communications Decency Act” and said a state appeals court in Georgia had issued a similar ruling in another case. He said his clients looked forward to trying their case before a jury, although Snap could ask the trial judge in Los Angeles to dismiss the case by arguing that the parents lacked evidence to support their claims.
Snap, based in Santa Monica, declined to comment on the ruling.
The crash happened on an evening in May 2017 on a road in Walworth County, Wisconsin. The court said the driver, Jason Davis, 17, accelerated to speeds above 100mph (160kmph) for several minutes and drove as fast as 123mph (198kmph) before the car, going 113mph (181kmph), left the road, struck a tree and burst into flames. Also killed were the passengers, Landen Brown, 20, who had used the Speed Filter to post the vehicle’s speed from the front seat, and Hunter Morby, 17. All three lived in the nearby town of Burlington.
The suit, filed by the parents of the two passengers, said there had been at least three other crashes of vehicles whose occupants tracked and posted their speeds with Snapchat devices.
In reinstating the suit, the court said the parents were not trying to blame Snap for the content of Landen Brown’s message or similar messages posted by others elsewhere. Instead, Wardlaw said, they were seeking to hold Snap responsible for its own alleged negligence, “contending that the app's Speed Filter and reward system worked together to encourage users to drive at dangerous speeds”. – San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service