Snap must face suit over speed filter's role in deadly car crash - 9th Circuit

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A portrait of the Snapchat logo in Ventura, California December 21, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

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(Reuters) - Snap Inc must face a lawsuit accusing it of causing a car accident that killed three teenagers by encouraging unsafe driving through a feature in its Snapchat social media app allowing users to share photos or videos displaying their speed.

A unanimous 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on Tuesday ruled that Santa Monica, California-based Snap was not immune under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which shields social media companies from being held liable as publishers of information on their platforms. The court reversed a lower court's dismissal of the case, which was brought by two of the teenagers' parents.

"We appreciate the careful attention that the 9th Circuit paid to this case, and the well-written, unanimous opinion reflects such thoughtful work by the panel," Naveen Ramachandrappa of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an email. "We look forward to returning to the district court and having this case move forward with discovery and a fair determination of the merits by a jury."

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Snap, which is represented by Jonathan Blavin of Munger, Tolles & Olson, declined to comment.

The case stems from a 2017 accident in Wisconsin that killed Jason Davis, who was driving the car, Hunter Morby and Landen Brown. The car crashed into a tree after running off the road at 113 miles per hour, according to the opinion.

Shortly before the crash, Brown opened the Snapchat app to document the car's speed, using a so-called filter that superimposes the user's speed on a short photo or video, known as a snap.

In May 2019, Morby's parents, Carly Lemmon and Michael Morby, and Brown's parents, Samantha and Marlo Brown, sued Snap in the Central District of California, alleging that Snapchat was negligently designed because it encouraged users to drive at unsafe speeds.

They said that the app gives users rewards for posting certain snaps, without telling them which snaps will get rewards, and that many users believed posting a snap at over 100 miles per hour would earn a reward. They cited a series of news articles about the phenomenon published before the accident.

U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald granted Snap's motion to dismiss, finding the plaintiffs improperly sought to hold Snap liable as a publisher of third-party content on its platform. Section 230 of the CDA bars social media companies from being sued as publishers.

Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote Tuesday that it was "apparent" the lawsuit did not seek to hold Snap liable as a publisher.

"Their negligent design 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 and the Speed Filter)," she wrote, remanding the case to the district court.

Wardlaw was joined by Circuit Judge Carlos Bea and U.S. District Judge James Cain of the Western District of Louisiana, sitting by designation.

The case is Lemmon v. Snap Inc, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-55295.

For plaintiffs: Naveen Ramachandrappa of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore

For Snap: Jonathan Blavin of Munger, Tolles & Olson

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at