9th Circuit Holds Snapchat Can Be Sued Over Speed Filter Encouraging Reckless Driving

After reviving a lawsuit against social media company Snap Inc. over its speed filter, which was dismissed in 2020 in the Northern District of California, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion on Tuesday reversing the district court’s dismissal and remanding the matter for further proceedings. 

The appellate panel consisting of Circuit Judges Kim McLane Wardlaw and Carlos T. Bea as well as District Judge James David Cain, Jr. found that Snap Inc., the parent company of social media app Snapchat, could be sued over a Snapchat filter that purportedly encouraged reckless driving by implicitly rewarding that behavior, concluding that Section 230 immunity did not apply.

The initial lawsuit was filed after a 20-year old Snapchat user crashed his car while using Snapchat’s speed filter, allegedly driving 123 mph at one point. The crash, which occurred in 2017, killed the driver and two teenage passengers. Two of the victims’ parents sued Snap for wrongful death, claiming that Snap “encouraged their sons to drive at dangerous speeds and caused the boys’ deaths through its negligent design of its smartphone application Snapchat.” 

As noted in the opinion, some Snapchat users believe that they will be rewarded for “‘recording a 100-MPH or faster [s]nap’ using the Speed Filter,” through a trophy or other recognition. The parents averred that reaching 100 mph and taking a photo or video with the filter to share on Snapchat “is a game for Snap and many of its users.” As a result, the plaintiffs alleged that Snapchat should have known before the crash that users believed there was some reward and it was “incentivizing young drivers to drive at dangerous speeds.”

According to the appellate panel, the district court held that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) barred that plaintiffs’ claims because they sought to treat Snap “‘as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.’” The Ninth Circuit noted that it applied the three-prong test set forth in Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc. to determine if Section 230 immunity applied.

The Ninth Circuit stated for the first prong that “the parties did not dispute that Snap, Inc. was a provider of an ‘interactive computer service.’” For the second prong, the appellate panel determined that “the plaintiffs’ claim did not treat Snap, Inc. as a ‘publisher or speaker’ because the plaintiffs’ claims turned on Snap, Inc.’s design of Snapchat,” thus Snap was treated as a “products manufacturer” that negligently designed a defect in their product.  Therefore, the court asserted that Snap allegedly violated its duty as a product designer, which is independent of its “role in monitoring or publishing third-party content.” Addressing the third prong, the Ninth Circuit stated that “the plaintiffs had not relied on ‘information provided by another information content provider.’” 

Thus, according to the appellate panel, Snap “was sued for the predictable consequences of designing Snapchat in such a way that it allegedly encouraged dangerous behavior.” As a result, the court found that Snap did not satisfy each of the three prongs required to have Section 230 immunity.

The Ninth Circuit also did not affirm the lower court’s decision on the alternative ground that the plaintiffs failed to adequately plead in their amended complaint the causation element for the claim of negligent design.

The appellate opinion was given by Judge Wardlaw.

The plaintiffs-appellants are represented by Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP and Snap is represented by Munger Tolles & Olson LLP.