A lawsuit filed by the guardian a 15-year-old sophomore at a Texas high school over a teacher’s sexual predation has been dismissed as to all defendants, including Snap Inc., whom the plaintiff accused of facilitating inappropriate sexual conduct through negligent product design and oversight. In an opinion issued late last week, the court found Snap immune from claims under Section 230 the Communications Decency Act (CDA).
The opinion by Chief District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal recounted how the student, a “troubled adolescent who survived a difficult childhood,” was lured into a relationship with his thirty-something female science teacher. Allegedly, the instructor enticed the student into a relationship using the social-media platform Snapchat to send him inappropriate messages and photographs, and then by encouraging him to take prescription and over-the-counter drugs before and during their sexual encounters, which recurred for several months.
The illicit relationship was discovered when the student overdosed on the prescription drugs the teacher allegedly provided him. After a long hospital stay, the student recovered, “at least from the drug overdose,” the opinion said.
In addition to a litany of claims against the school board, school leaders, and the teacher, the guardian sued Snap, alleging three state-law negligence claims. Specifically, the guardian said that Snap breached its duty to intervene when an adult started sending sexually explicit messages and images to a minor, that its product was negligently designed, and that the company engaged in gross negligence by conscious indifference to the use of its product to foster the exploitation of a minor.
Snap moved to dismiss on grounds that the claims were barred by Section 230 of the CDA, which provides broad immunity to web-based service providers for all claims borne from their publication of information created by third parties. The court agreed in a discussion of several appellate decisions from the Fifth and Third Circuits which it considered on point.
The ruling also distinguished a 2021 case from the Ninth Circuit. In that suit, the panel declined Snap’s Section 230 defense where two boys were killed in a car crash that occurred because they were driving at high speeds while attempting to take a picture using a Snapchat filter that shows users the speed at which they are traveling. There, the court said Snap was not being held accountable as the publisher of content but rather for its negligent product design.
By comparison, Judge Rosenthal said that the present fact pattern warrants application of Section 230. The messages and photos sent by the teacher to the student constituted information provided by a third-party merely published by Snapchat, an interactive online platform, the court said in dismissing the claims against Snap with prejudice.