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Case Against Snapchat Involving “Speed Filter” Moves Forward

On April 1, 2022, the parties in Lemmon v. Snap, Inc., Case No. 2:19-CV-04504-MWF-KS, received an Order signed by The Honorable Michael W. Fitzgerald of the United States District Court for Central District of California fully denying Snap’s Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiffs’ First Amended Complaint. Expressly stated in the Order is that the Plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the design of Snapchat’s Speed Filter encouraged reckless driving and, thus, have properly pled proximate causation. Judge Fitzgerald’s Order noted “A design defect exists when the product is built in accordance with its intended specifications, but the design itself is inherently defective,” citing Chavez v. Glock, Inc., 207 Cal. App. 4th 1283, 1303 (2012).

Lemmon v. Snap is a senseless wrongful death case involving the deaths of three boys (ages 17 to 20) in Wisconsin. The boys died in a car wreck that was related to driving at dangerously high speeds. Like allegations made in Maynard v. Snapchat, Inc., a case pending in Georgia, the Plaintiffs in Lemmon allege that Snapchat’s Speed Filter encouraged users to drive at reckless speeds in order to obtain social media recognition.

The Lemmon case had previously been dismissed based on the rationale that the Communications Decency Act provided immunity to Snap. That holding was reversed by the 9th Circuit on May 4, 2021. The case was remanded back to Judge Fitzgerald for analysis on issues including choice of law, sufficiency of the Plaintiffs’ Negligence Claim (including Proximate Cause), Contributory Negligence, and Public Policy.

The social media industry has been under intense public scrutiny for not only allegedly dangerous designs but also for an alleged lack of care and response to public concern about the hazards of social media and how it affects children, teenagers and young adults. As noted in an amicus brief filed by University of Louisiana Lafayette Professor T. Scott Smith (Ph.D. in Educational Psychology) to the Georgia Supreme Court in Maynard v. Snap, teenagers and young adults have an immature brain. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that processes cognitive and emotional information. Dr. Smith noted, “The combination of limited life experiences along with poor decision-making skills means that teenagers are most often vulnerable to negative peer pressure. As a result, they often accept risky behaviors to gain popularity.”

Snapchat is currently a dominant form of communication amongst teenagers and young adults. As a result of this societal change, Dr. Smith noted, “there is tremendous pressure to not just communicate through social media, but standout” As a result, Smith concludes, “individuals that post boring posts will not gain popularity or notoriety. Contrast this negative with the perception that individuals that post exciting, sensationalistic posts will gain status or infamy within their peer groups.”

Snapchat and other social media companies have been relying on the Communications Decency Act as a controversial shield against legal responsibility. In an unusual occurrence, lawyers, legislators, and judges across the ideological spectrum have agreed that social media companies have been improperly exploiting the CDA to shield themselves from accountability. The 9th Circuit and the Georgia Court of Appeals have agreed that the CDA does not bar products liability claims against Snapchat for its Speed Filter.

The 22-page Order released in Lemmon is noteworthy because it looks at the issue of proximate cause and finds that the Plaintiff have adequately alleged a legal connection between the allegedly defective design and the deaths. As noted by Judge Fitzgerald, “the basic design of the Speed Filter itself appears to encourage reckless driving. There is realistically no purpose for the Speed Filter other than to encourage users to travel at high speeds and record themselves doing so.” Order at p 11. Judge Fitzgerald further notes that Snap’s argument that the users of its Speed Filter could choose to safely use it while walking, jogging, or riding a Ferris wheel is “highly implausible” and commented “It is common sense that adding a speed-sharing feature to a social media application used predominantly by minors and young adults would encourage such users to record themselves while driving at high speeds.” Order at p 11-12.

The issue of proximate cause will be reviewed by the Georgia Court of Appeals in Maynard v. Snapchat. The Georgia Supreme Court recently reversed the Court of Appeals after it erroneously held that Snap did not have a duty to design against foreseeable illegal behavior. The Court of Appeals must now consider proximate cause, just as Judge Fitzgerald. One important factor to consider on proximate cause is the reasonable foreseeability of the event. On that issue, Judge Fitzgerald noted, “One of the only realistic uses of the Speed Filter is for users to record themselves traveling at high speeds. It is extremely foreseeable that minors and young adults would use the Speed Filter to record themselves driving at excessive speeds.” Order at p 18 (Emphasis in original).

The Court concluded its review of proximate cause with the statement, “The causal connection between the Speed Filter and the speeding accident is strong given that the accident occurred while the Plaintiffs were using the Speed Filter for the exact purpose for which it appears to be designed: to record the user traveling at excessive speeds.”

Snap was directed to file an Answer to the Complaint on or before April 18, 2022.

“Snap’s choices to design, code, publish, promote, and then retain the Speed Filter app despite repeated incidents of dangerous speeding and multiple public calls for its withdrawal is something that bewilders and infuriates our team.

Pursuing legal accountability from Snap for the senseless injuries and loss of life has been a professional calling that has required patience and discipline.

Our clients are extremely grateful for the close attention paid to the facts and the legal issues in this case by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald, the 9th Circuit, the Georgia Supreme Court, and the Georgia Court of Appeals—as well as those that have provided amicus support.

We look forward to pursuing discovery from Snap about its choices in the Lemmon case and to eventually doing so on behalf of the Maynard family as well.”

– Michael L. Neff, Neff Injury Law, & Naveen Ramachandrappa, Bondurant Mixson & Elmore – Counsel for the Lemmon, Morby, & Brown families.