Lawsuit Against Snapchat Encouraging Speeding Can Proceed

The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected Snapchat's federal 47 U.S.C. sec. 230 defense, though Snapchat may still win under Georgia law.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From yesterday's Georgia Court of Appeals decision in Maynard v. Snapchat, Inc., the facts as alleged:

[O]n the evening of September 10, 2015, a car accident occurred between the Maynards and Christal McGee. Heather McCarty was a passenger in the backseat of McGee's vehicle at the time of the accident. McCarty's affidavit recounts the events preceding the accident as follows:

"I looked up and noticed that we seemed to be accelerating. I looked in the front, and saw Christal McGee holding her phone. The screen had a speed on it, which was about 80 m.p.h. and climbing. I asked Christal if her phone was keeping up with the speed of the car. Christal said it was. I told her I was pregnant and asked her to slow down. Christal responded and said she was just trying to get the car to 100 m.p.h. to post it on Snapchat. She said 'I'm about to post it.' I began pleading with Christal to slow down. I saw the speed on the phone hit 113 m.p.h. before she let off the gas. Just after I saw the speed of 113 m.p.h., a car pulled out of an apartment complex, and I screamed."

As a result of the accident, Wentworth Maynard sustained permanent brain damage.

Snapchat is an application made for mobile devices that allows users to take temporary photos and videos, also known as "Snaps," and share them with friends. Snapchat creates "filters" that allow users to include captions, drawings, and graphic overlays on a user's photos or videos. One of these filters is a speedometer that shows the speed at which a user is moving and allows for that speed to be superimposed to a Snap before sending it out over the application (the "Speed Filter").

The Maynards allege that McGee was using Snapchat and driving in excess of 100 m.p.h. at the time of the crash. The Maynards do not allege that McGee uploaded or posted a Snap using the Speed Filter before the accident occurred.

The legal claim:

The Maynards brought suit against both McGee and Snapchat. The Maynards allege that Snapchat knew that its users could "use its service in a manner that might distract them from obeying traffic or safety laws." Further, the Maynards allege that Snapchat's Speed Filter "encourages" dangerous speeding and that the Speed Filter "facilitated McGee's excessive speeding[,]" which resulted in the crash. In granting Snapchat's Motion to Dismiss, the trial court concluded that Snapchat is immune to suit under the [Communications Decency Act] because Snapchat was merely the publisher of third-party content, not the creator of content.

The trial court held that Snapchat was immune under 47 U.S.C. sec. 230 (part of the so-called Communications Decency Act). The Court of Appeals explained section 230 this way:

Section 230 of the CDA immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties: "No provider … of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." … The CDA was enacted by Congress to provide "federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service" …. Ultimately, the use of the CDA is to "protect internet service providers for the display of content created by someone else."

The CDA states that it was enacted to further certain policy objectives, including: ["]to promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media[,] … to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation[, and] … to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received by individuals, families, and schools who use the Internet and other interactive computer services[."]

This Court has held that "three elements are required for § 230 (c) (1) immunity. First, the defendant must be a provider or user of an interactive computer service. Second, the asserted claims must treat the defendant as a publisher or speaker of [that] information. Third, the challenged communication must be information provided by another information content provider." "[C]ourts have consistently held that § 230 provides a robust immunity, and that all doubts must be resolved in favor of immunity." …

But, the Court of Appeals held, Snapchat wasn't being sued on the theory that it was a publisher or speaker of photos posted at a high speed, but rather that it designed the site in a way that encourages speeding:

In [past cases finding immunity under § 230,] the publication of a third-party user's posts caused the harm, and the claims depended on the content of the posts themselves. In the instant case, on the other hand, there was no third-party content uploaded to Snapchat at the time of the accident and the Maynards do not seek to hold Snapchat liable for publishing a Snap by a third-party that utilized the Speed Filter. Rather, the Maynards seek to hold Snapchat liable for its own conduct, principally for the creation of the Speed Filter and its failure to warn users that the Speed Filter could encourage speeding and unsafe driving practices. Accordingly, we hold that CDA immunity does not apply because there was no third-party user content published.

The Court of Appeals then sent the case back down to the trial court to consider Snapchat's other claims, which were that (1) Snapchat's actions weren't actionable under Georgia negligence law, and (2) the Georgia courts "lack[] personal jurisdiction over Snapchat."