Speed Kills: Potential Product Liability When Social Media Apps Contribute To Accidents
By Paul V. Esposito
But for the grace of God, many of us might already be dead. Those teenage and early adult years were tons of fun. They left plenty of time for doing crazy things. And many did. It’s because the young have a certain sense that nothing will go wrong, that everything will turn out fine in the end.
As we age, we come to understand the myth. Things can, and do, go wrong. Not everything turns out fine in the end. Christal McGee learned that lesson all too well. And social media company Snapchat is learning that its possible connection to an accident may be a costly one. Maynard v. Snapchat, Inc., 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 37.
Late one evening, 18 year-old Christal took three friends out for a ride in the family car. Christal had one purpose in mind. She put a Snapchat app on her smartphone. Snapchat lets users create, upload, post, and share digital photos and videos. The app contained a “Speed Filter” giving users the ability to record driving speeds, and then overlay the numbers on photos and videos to be shared with friends. Christal was eager to try it out.
Christal hit the highway and accelerated, hoping to hit 100 mph for her Snapchat post. Distracted by her unsafe driving, Christal did not see driver Wentworth Maynard enter the highway ahead of her. Moving at an estimated 107 mph and unable to timely react, Christal rear-ended Wentworth’s vehicle, pushing it off the highway. He suffered permanent brain damage, with everyone else also injured.
Wentworth and Karen Maynard sued Snapchat for negligence and loss of consortium. Their claims included a request for punitive damages. They contended that Snap negligently designed the filter and encouraged users to endanger themselves and others. The trial court granted Snap’s motion to dismiss, ruling that it had no duty to alter the design to prevent negligent or reckless driving. The court also ruled that Christal’s driving, not the app, proximately caused the accident.
In a split decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed. 851 S.E.2d 128 (2020). The majority found that absent a special relationship, there is no duty on manufacturers to prevent third parties from intentionally and tortiously misusing products.
But the case wasn’t over. Not by a longshot.
The Georgia Supreme Court saw the law differently. 870 S.E.2d 739 (2022). Despite Snap’s warnings not to “Snap and drive,” the Court stated that a manufacturer must always ask whether a risk is reasonably foreseeable. A manufacturer breaches its design duty if it fails to adopt a reasonable, safer design that would reduce a foreseeable risk. Whether a third-party intentionally or tortiously misused a product is irrelevant if the product’s risk of harm is reasonably foreseeable. Based on Maynard’s allegations, Snap knew drivers were using the speed filter as a driving game yet continued to develop the product.
That still left the issue of proximate cause unresolved, so the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals. This time, it ruled for the Maynards. 2023 Ga. LEXIS 37. A breach is a proximate cause only if injury is the probable result of it. But in the context of causation, “probable” does not mean “more likely than not.” It merely refers to “such a chance of harmful result that a prudent man would foresee an appreciable risk that some harm would happen.” Foreseeability is the key. An unforeseeable intervening act will break the chain of causation.
The Court of Appeals found the allegations of the Maynards’ complaint sufficient to state a claim for relief. The complaint alleged that Snap created rewards or incentives for users, particularly young drivers, to misuse its product in dangerous ways. It alleged that Snap knew drivers were speeding over 100 mph so they could share their recorded speeds among friends on Snapchat. Christal allegedly told her friends about her plan to do so. Because Snap allegedly knew about the dangerous behaviors of drivers using Snap’s filter, the court ruled that Christal’s recklessness will not automatically insulate Snap from potential liability.
Learning Point: For drivers, the lesson is obvious and undeniable. Driving is a serious responsibility. Unsafe driving can have irreparable lifetime consequences. For manufacturers, an added lesson applies: not all products are worth making, and not all features are worth adding. Today, product analysis must go far beyond asking whether something is technologically feasible. Manufacturers must ask very tough questions about what user behaviors and misuses their products encourage or invite. The answers will heavily bear on foreseeability, and that bears on liability.
In 2021, Snap disabled its speed filter, which hopefully will discourage further reckless teen driving. But the filter has been a suggested cause of young people’s deaths in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. The Wisconsin fatality has resulted in litigation. The Georgia lawsuit in Maynard has already resulted in three appeals just over the pleadings.
Speed kills. For Snap the manufacturer, the ride to the finish line has the potential of getting awfully expensive.