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On May 23, 2019, Wisconsin parents filed a new personal injury lawsuit against Snap, Inc., makers of the Snapchat “Speed Filter” application. They claimed that the app encouraged reckless driving, and contributed to a deadly crash that killed three teenage boys.

Snap has been fighting the lawsuit, seeking to have it dismissed. Recently, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald allowed the suit to go forward.

Parents Believe Snapchat App Contributed to Deadly Crash

The accident occurred on May 28, 2017. A seventeen-year-old boy was driving in Wisconsin with two passengers when he crashed into a tree. The car burst into flames and all three boys were killed.

The plaintiffs filed their claim in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. They alleged that the Snapchat app was a critical cause of the accident. The Speed Filter app applies an overlay on users’ “snaps” showing their speed. Some users believed they could earn in-app achievements for traveling over 100 mph. Snapchat was known to reward users in unknown, variable ways with trophies, streaks, and social recognition.

An examination of the boys’ phones showed that one of them had the Speed Filter app open at the time of the crash. One “snap” captured the passengers’ speed at 123 mph. County Sheriff investigators estimated the speed of the vehicle was 113 miles per hour at the time of the crash.

The plaintiffs alleged that the passengers were motivated to drive at excessive speeds to obtain recognition and to share their speed through Snapchat. They added that Snapchat encouraged and facilitated the boy’s excessive speeding.

“Regardless of whether Snap intended to encourage dangerous speeding,” the complaint reads, “Snap knew or should have known that it was, in fact, encouraging dangerous speeding, either by users while drivers or passengers.”

Appeals Court Reverses Lower Court Ruling

Snap filed a motion to dismiss on August 2, 2019. Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald granted that motion a few months later, with leave to amend, finding that Snap was protected from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). This act shields social medial companies from being held liable as publishers of information.

The plaintiffs amended the complaint. Snap filed a motion to dismiss again. In February 2020, Judge Fitzgerald granted the motion to dismiss the first amended complaint, again citing the CDA. The plaintiffs appealed and the case went to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In May 2021, that court reversed the lower court’s dismissal, finding that the lawsuit did not seek to hold Snap liable as a publisher.

Instead, Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote that the lawsuit “treats Snap as a products manufacturer, accusing it of negligently designing a product (Snapchat) with a defect (the interplay between Snapchat’s reward system as the Speed Filter).”

According to this viewpoint, Snapchat was not simply a publisher, but a manufacturer designing a faulty product. “Thus, the duty that Snap allegedly violated ‘springs from’ its distinct capacity as a product designer,” Wardlaw wrote. She added that Snap could have taken measures to design a safer product without altering the content its users generated.

This decision remanded the case to the California Circuit Court. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald recently ruled with the Ninth Circuit that the Speed Filter was a product feature of the app, not user-posted content, allowing the case to proceed.

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