Ohio Court Rejects Wrongful Death Suit Over Facebook Killing

A Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in 2018. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

CLEVELAND (CN) — Facebook cannot be held liable for the death of an Ohio man whose killer posted a disturbing message on the social media platform and later shared a video of the shooting before he died by suicide, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.

Robert Godwin Sr., a grandfather of 14, was shot and killed at random by Steve Stephens in April 2017, shortly after Stephens posted a cryptic and threatening message to his Facebook page.

A manhunt for Stephens ensued, and he eventually shot himself in the head near a McDonald’s in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The post read, in part, “I not going into details but I’m at my breaking point I’m really on some murder shit…FB you have 4 minutes to tell me why I shouldn’t be on deathrow!!!”

Godwin’s estate, led by his daughter, filed a lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in January 2018, claiming Facebook could have prevented the shooting by passing information about Stephens’ post along to local law enforcement.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Timothy McCormick dismissed the Godwin family’s complaint in October 2018, and ruled there were insufficient facts to prove Facebook had any modicum of control over Stephens or that it should have known he was likely to commit a violent act.

“Here, Godwin has made no allegations in her complaint that the Facebook defendants had knowledge of any violent acts prior to the murder of Robert Godwin Sr.,” McCormick wrote. “Moreover, there are also no allegations that Stephens committed any prior violent acts that the Facebook defendants could have known about.”

Godwin’s family also sought to hold Facebook liable for a failure to report terroristic threatening, but McCormick dismissed the claim.

“Even though [Stephens] makes what could potentially be construed as an ultimatum to Facebook, there is nothing else in the complaint which indicates he wanted the population at large to do anything,” the judge wrote. “The post does not indicate that Stephens was trying to frighten a civilian population into doing anything.”

Thursday’s decision by Ohio’s Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed McCormick’s ruling and focused on the lack of a “special relationship” between Facebook and Stephens that would require the social media company to control its users’ conduct and prevent harm to other individuals.

Judge Sean Gallagher wrote the appeals court’s opinion, and said the special relationship the Godwin estate attempts to establish most closely mirrors that of a “taking charge” relationship similar to a physician or psychiatrist and their patient.

“Godwin” Gallagher said, “has not cited any authority for the proposition that a social media company ‘takes charge’ of its users to the same extent that a medical or mental health professional takes charge of her patient or a parole or probation officer takes charge of her probationer for the purposes of expanding the theory of liability.”

In its brief to the appellate court, the estate argued that the advent of “data mining” efforts by social media sites necessitates a new category of special relationship to confer liability on the companies.

It claimed Facebook’s user agreements – which “required Stephens to relinquish control of his personal information and data” and allowed the company to obtain information about his “emotional status, purchases … and precise location” – created a special relationship that should have prevented dismissal of negligence and wrongful death claims. (Emphasis in original.)

Gallagher disagreed, and wrote that “none of Godwin’s allegations demonstrate the possibility of proving the existence of a special relationship, as contemplated under Ohio tort law and as required to establish the existence of a duty.”

The estate also argued that the trial court’s decision to dismiss the claim related to terroristic threatening “defies common sense” because “any reasonable person reading Stephens’ post … easily would have felt intimidated by Stephens’ ‘dead serious’ threat.”

The argument did not sway the appeals court either.

“There are no factual allegations or even legal conclusions for that matter, that the civilian population had a reasonable expectation that Stephens intended to commit murder before Stephens committed the heinous act,” Gallagher wrote. “In this appeal, Godwin asks for that to be assumed because ‘certainly, someone intending to do some random ‘murder shit’ is likely to cause fear in a reasonable person’s mind.’ Supposition as to what could occur is not sufficient.”

Judge Patricia Blackmon wrote a concurring opinion in which she called out the “lack of developing law governing the relationship” between social media sites and their users.

Blackmon pointed out that the emergence of social media influencing as a viable career path and the widespread use of the platforms has created a duty for companies like Facebook to protect users from harms perpetrated by third parties.

“As a matter of policy,” she said, “public safety should be of primary concern, which is why we have tort law. I truly do not see Facebook’s issue. It had information of a potential crime. By acting it might have saved a life. Of course, we will never know, but that is why we give individuals their day in court.”

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