Ninth Circuit Revives Negligent-Design Suit Over Snapchat ‘Speed Filter’

Parents whose children were killed in a car crash while using Snapchat’s “Speed Filter” say their children may have believed they could earn in-app achievements for doing over 100 miles per hour.

(Image by Souvik Banerjee from Pixabay)

(CN) — Just before their car drove off a Wisconsin road at 113 mph, crashed into a tree and burst into flames in May 2017, one of the teenaged passengers took a Snapchat video with a filter that records how fast the user is traveling. Before that, driver Jason Davis, 17, and his friends Hunter Morby, 17, and Landen Brown, 20, of Walworth County, Wisconsin, reached speeds of up to 123 mph.

In her 18-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McClane Wardlaw recounted the final moments of the young men.

“They sped along at these high speeds for several minutes, before they eventually ran off the road at approximately 113 mph and crashed into a tree,” the Clinton appointee wrote. “Tragically, their car burst into flames, and all three boys died.”

The parents of the two passengers sued Snapchat parent Snap Inc., claiming the speed filter is an incentive for users to drive at dangerous speeds. According to their lawsuit filed in the Central District of California, the “Speed Filter” puts overlay on user’s “snaps” showing their speed and some users believe they can earn in-app achievements for traveling over 100 mph.

For its part, Snapchat does not detail how users earn awards. But the parents say the company has an obligation to remove or restrict access to the app while someone is traveling at high speeds.

But U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald dismissed the lawsuit, finding Snap is protected from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Fitzgerald ruled the parents were unable to show “a causal connection between defendant’s Speed Filter and the car accident.”

After dismissing the parents’ amended complaint on similar grounds, Fitzgerald denied further leave to amend and entered a final judgment in February 2020.

The Ninth Circuit revived the parents’ suit Tuesday, finding their amended complaint did not seek to hold Snap liable as a publisher — which enjoys CDA protection. Instead, the parents claims involve Snap’s role as the designer of Snapchat. that the parents could sue Snap Inc. as the manufacturer of a negligently designed product.

“Thus, the duty that Snap allegedly violated ‘springs from’ its distinct capacity as a product designer,” Wardlaw wrote for the panel. “This is further evidenced by the fact that Snap could have satisfied its ‘alleged obligation’ — to take reasonable measures to design a product more useful than it was foreseeably dangerous — without altering the content that Snapchat’s users generate.”

Wardlaw acknowledged Snap’s role as internet publisher, but noted the parents’ claims of negligence in the way Snapchat is designed.

“This case presents a clear example of a claim that simply does not rest on third-party content. Snap indisputably designed Snapchat’s reward system and Speed Filter and made those aspects of Snapchat available to users through the internet,” wrote Wardlaw. “And the parents’ negligent design claim faults Snap solely for Snapchat’s architecture, contending that the app’s Speed Filter and reward system worked together to encourage users to drive at dangerous speeds.”

The parents don’t blame Snapchat for publishing Brown’s last snap, but instead want to hold the company liable for the negligent design of the product Brown used to make the snap.

“It is by now clear that the parents’ negligent design claim does not turn on the content of Landen’s particular snap,” Wardlaw wrote.

“To sum up, even if Snap is acting as a publisher in releasing Snapchat and its various features to the public, the parents’ claim still rests on nothing more than Snap’s ‘own acts,’” she continued. “In short, Snap ‘is being sued for the predictable consequences of’ designing Snapchat in such a way that it allegedly encourages dangerous behavior.”

The panel reversed Fitzgerald’s dismissal and remanded the case. U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos Bea, a George W. Bush appointee, and U.S. District Judge James D. Cain Jr., a Donald Trump appointee sitting by designation from the Western District of Louisiana, rounded out the panel.

Snap declined to comment on the opinion. The law firm of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, representing the parents, said they look forward to moving forward with discovery in the case.

“The Ninth Circuit’s rejection of Snap’s attempt to hide behind the Communications Decency Act is now the second such opinion by an appellate court, with the Georgia Court of Appeals having previously rejected virtually identical arguments made by Snap in another Speed Filter case,” the Georgia-based law firm said in a statement.

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