Crash victim gets new chance to prove Snap 'speed filter' caused accident

5 minute read

A woman stands in front of the logo of Snap Inc on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, NY, U.S. March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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(Reuters) - In a decision that could have implications in other lawsuits blaming social media companies for users’ conduct, the Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday revived a lawsuit by the victim of a horrific 2015 car crash who has accused Snap Inc of designing an app filter that allegedly encouraged reckless driving by the young woman who caused the crash.

The driver, Christal McGee, allegedly told her passengers moments before she crashed into Wentworth Maynard’s car that she was trying to get to 100 mph in order to post a photo on Snapchat, which at the time had a “speed filter” that allowed users to show how fast they were traveling when they posted. (One of McGee’s passengers later said in an affidavit that she told McGee she was pregnant and pleaded with the 18-year-old to slow down.) McGee’s Mercedes was traveling at an estimated 107 mph when she hit Maynard’s Mitsubishi Outlander.

McGee, who posted a post-crash selfie on Snapchat with the tagline “lucky to be alive,” eventually pleaded no contest to a criminal charge of causing a serious injury with her vehicle.

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Maynard’s car was flung off the road and into an embankment. In the lawsuit he and his wife filed in 2016, he alleged that he has never fully recovered from his brain injuries, even after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

The Maynards, represented by Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, sought to hold Snap liable, asserting that the app’s speed filter feature was negligently designed. Snap, they’ve said throughout the litigation, had good reason to suspect that the filter would prompt users like McGee to drive dangerously yet did not build in protections to reduce that risk.

Snap’s lawyers at Munger, Tolles & Olson countered that McGee’s criminal misuse of the app broke any link in the chain of liability between Snap and the Maynards. Snap’s terms of use, Munger Tolles said, expressly forbid use of the app for illegal purposes. Moreover, when users accessed the speed filter, Snap argued, they received a pop-up alert warning them not to use Snap while driving. The company said it had no legal duty to prevent McGee from ignoring its warnings and misusing its product.

Snap also disputed the Maynards’ assertion that it had reason before the 2015 McGee crash to be concerned about users driving recklessly while using the speed filter. The plaintiffs cited only three other accidents involving the filter, Snap said, and all took place after 2015.

Snap counsel Jonathan Blavin of Munger Tolles did not respond to my email query. The company disabled the speed filter, which was heavily criticized by automotive safety advocates, in June 2021.

A divided three-judge Georgia appeals court sided with Snap last summer, holding that Snap had no duty to design the speed filter to avert the consequences of McGee’s intentional misuse. After the Maynards won leave to appeal that decision to the Georgia Supreme Court, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce weighed in as a Snap amici, insisting that businesses would be crippled by potential liability if the state justices imposed an obligation on manufacturers to prevent consumers from intentionally misusing products. Such a ruling, the Chamber said, would make Georgia an outlier jurisdiction.

The Georgia Supreme Court rejected that assertion in Tuesday’s holding that state law provides no blanket exception to liability when a consumer intentionally misuses a product. Georgia precedent, the court said, requires manufacturers “to use reasonable care in selecting from alternative designs to reduce reasonably foreseeable risks of harm posed by its products.” In this case, the justices said, the Maynards adequately alleged that Snap had a duty to design its app to avert the risk that Snap users like McGee would drive recklessly while applying the speed filter.

To be sure, the court said, product liability plaintiffs must also establish that the manufacturer’s negligent design was the proximate cause of the alleged injuries. That proximate cause requirement put Georgia in line with other jurisdictions, the court held, even if some defendants end up litigating beyond initial pleadings to disprove causation.

The justices remanded the Maynards’ suit to the intermediate appeals court to determine if the trial court erred granting judgment to Snap on the proximate cause issue.

The Maynards’ lead counsel, Naveen Ramachandrappa of Bondurant Mixson, said that this case is different from lawsuits in which car crash victims tried and failed to blame smart phones for distracting drivers. There are good reasons why drivers might need to use cellphones, he said, and courts that have rejected product liability claims against phone makers have found that manufacturers were justified in balance risk and utility. By contrast, Ramachandrappa said, there does not seem to be any good reason why a driver might have needed to use the Snap speed filter.

Ramachandrappa said it’s important that the Georgia Supreme Court treated Snap like any other manufacturer in assessing its design duties, declining to allow the social media site to escape responsibility by pointing to its terms of service or blaming its user. (Bondurant Mixson is also representing plaintiffs in what appears to be the only other lawsuit accusing Snap of liability for a crash by a speed filter user. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last May that Snap is not shielded from immunity by the Communications Decency Act.)

Social media apps, he said, have a profound effect on their users, as demonstrated in this case by McGee’s post-crash Snapchat post. As plaintiffs’ lawyers contemplate potential claims against social media companies, Ramachandrappa said, this ruling could be a roadmap to establishing apps’ liability for failing to design their products to avert risk.

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Alison Frankel has covered high-stakes commercial litigation as a columnist for Reuters since 2011. A Dartmouth college graduate, she has worked as a journalist in New York covering the legal industry and the law for more than three decades. Before joining Reuters, she was a writer and editor at The American Lawyer. Frankel is the author of Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World’s Most Valuable Coin.