Did Snapchat’s speed filter, which counts photos posted on the app, counting miles per hour in real time, resulted in a group of teenage boys showing off for their followers and dying in a car accident?
That will be the question in a California court after an appeal decision on Tuesday cleared the way for a family to sue the popular photo-sharing app.
The lawsuit stems from an incident in May 2017 in Walworth County, Wisconsin, in which three young men flew down a country road in their car and reached speeds in excess of 120 mph. One of the passengers opened Snapchat in hopes of being able to document their exploits with the speed filter just before the car hit a tree and killed all three.
In Tuesday’s ruling in California’s Ninth Circuit Court, it ruled that Snap Inc, the parent company of Snapchat, could be sued in court over the app’s design features, which allegedly encouraged the boys’ parents to drive recklessly.
“Snap has indisputably developed the Snapchat reward system and speed filter and made these aspects of Snapchat available to users over the Internet,” wrote Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw in the ruling. “This type of claim is based on the premise that manufacturers are required to exercise due care in supplying products that do not pose an undue risk of injury or harm to the public.”
Snap Inc did not respond to a request for comment.
Lower courts had previously ruled that the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects social media companies from civil suits based on what users post on the websites, protects Snap from a car accident lawsuit.
Other federal appeals courts like the 2nd Circuit have also ruled that the CDA shielded the dating app Grindr from a similar claim that its design itself did real harm. In this case, a man’s ex-boyfriend pretended to be him in the app and sent strangers to his home.
If disagreements over how courts around the country interpret the law continue, it could be a reason for an eventual showdown by the Supreme Court to resolve such a remarkable “circuit breakdown”.
“It is a triumphant day to see an internet company blamed for products that are flawedly designed,” Carrie Goldberg, a victim rights attorney who led the Grindr lawsuit, told NPR on Tuesday. “The biggest hurdle in personal injury law is facing a jury, and it could lead to this situation for billions of dollars worth of tech companies.”