Jan 3, 2023
Snapchat is a popular social media messaging app that debuted in 2011 to much fanfare. In an initial iteration of the app, Snapchat set itself apart from other social media companies with its person-to-person photo sharing feature that made content available only for a short period of time, with images or messages typically set to automatically erase after 24 hours. A few years later, Snapchat’s “speed filter” feature was released, allowing users to display the actual speed at which they are traveling when taking selfies or “snaps.”
In 2017, three teenagers in a car were riding along a cornfield-lined road in Walworth County, Wisconsin, roughly 45 miles outside of Milwaukee. As the driver of the vehicle accelerated to extreme speeds, one of his passenger friends opened the Snapchat app and began documenting the event using its “speed filter.” The vehicle eventually reached 123 miles per hour, all while displaying the joyride for the entire world to see via Snapchat. Suddenly, the car veered off the road and crashed violently into a tree, killing all three teenagers inside.
The surviving family members believe Snapchat is to blame, alleging the company’s speed filter feature enticed the boys to engage in such a dangerous act in an effort to attract attention (or “engagement” in app-speak) from other followers. Although Snapchat vehemently denies any liability for the fatal car accident, a federal appeals court sided with the parents of the deceased teenagers Tuesday, ruling that they indeed had a right to sue the social media giant.
“We appreciate the careful attention that the [court of appeals] paid to this case, and the well-written, unanimous opinion reflects such thoughtful work by the panel,” a lawyer for the plaintiffs said in an email released by Reuters. “We look forward to returning to the district court and having this case move forward with discovery and a fair determination of the merits by a jury.”
The ruling by the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considered a bit of a surprise given a decades-old law that has heretofore shielded tech companies from civil lawsuits. As a result, an intense debate over the future of that law has begun. And the tragic car accident that killed three teenagers in Wisconsin represents one of many civil lawsuits Snapchat must now face.
In 2016, a car accident victim filed a product liability lawsuit against Snapchat alleging that the app’s speed filter was responsible for causing a crash that left him with traumatic brain injuries. The driver of the other vehicle, Christal McGee, was a teenager.
McGee was using Snapchat’s speed filter to photograph herself while driving at high speed when she crashed into Wentworth Maynard’s car “so violently it shot across the left lane into the left embankment,” according to his attorneys. Maynard spent five weeks in intensive care after the car accident, which McGee broadcast on Snapchat. Moments before the impact, McGee allegedly told one of the passengers in her vehicle, “Well, I’m just going to hit 100, and then I’m going to slow down.” Today, Maynard requires the assistance of either a wheelchair or walker in order to move around, and is unable to work in any capacity.
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Shortly after the crash occurred, CNN reported that McGee, who was also injured in the accident, took a Snapchat selfie while in an ambulance being transported to the hospital. On a gurney, with blood on her face, she captioned the selfie: “Lucky to be alive.”
Maynard’s family filed a lawsuit against both Snapchat and McGee. “The family would like Snapchat to take the speed filter down immediately so no other family will have to go through what they’re going through,” the Maynard’s attorney told ABC News in 2016. The speed filter feature is still available on the Snapchat app.
In the lawsuit approved by the 9th Circuit on Tuesday, the families of the three dead teens from Wisconsin allege Snapchat “encouraged their sons to drive at dangerous speeds and caused the boys’ deaths.” The suit also contends Snapchat’s speed filter is a clear example of “negligent design.”
In 2019, the American Automobile Association (AAA) released an alarming study indicating the prevalence of distracted driving on the part of teenagers. From 2013 to 2017, teen drivers were responsible for nearly 3,500 car accident fatalities. The AAA specifically examined a period it refers to as the “100 Deadliest Days” – from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The study focused on drivers between the ages of 15 and 18 who had obtained learner’s permits as well restricted or full licenses. Both speeding and driving after drinking alcohol were reported causes of several deadly crashes.
“Crash data shows that teens are a vulnerable driver group with a higher probability of being involved in crashes,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA. “And while teens may make mistakes when first learning to drive, it is important to continue educating them about safety behind the wheel so they avoid the reckless behaviors that put themselves and others at risk on the road.”
According to the AAA’s crash study:
As we mentioned in a recent distracted driving blog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirms that sending or reading a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for five full seconds. When traveling at a speed of 55 miles per hour, that is the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.
In the car crashes involving teens referenced above, the vehicles were traveling over 100 miles per hour while the drivers used Snapchat’s speed filter. In the Wisconsin crash, the vehicle reportedly reached 123 miles per hour. In other words, the driver was effectively blinded while traveling the length of more than two football fields before crashing into a tree.
Given the amount of data available regarding the dangers of distracted driving, with a simple action such as glancing at one’s screen or answering a text equaling substantial time where something can go wrong, legal professionals and laypeople are rightfully wondering whether Snapchat will be able to defend against civil suits citing use of the app’s speed filter.
Distracted driving is such a widespread issue that California recently passed legislation aimed at deterring that type of behavior. The state’s new Assembly Bill 47 (AB 47), which takes effect on July 1, penalizes drivers who do not use hands free devices while operating their vehicles. Under the new law, repeat hands-free offenders may be punished via ‘violation points’ that impact their driving records. After a certain number of points on one’s record, the state can suspend or even revoke your license.
To learn all about AB 47 and how it may impact you (and potentially alter your driving habits), take a look at our recent blog on the subject.
Tuesday’s ruling by the Court of Appeals may effectively open the proverbial floodgates for civil actions to be brought against Snapchat. Though we only referenced two specific car accidents above, there are countless reports of automobile crashes – many resulting in catastrophic injuries or even fatalities – involving drivers using Snapchat’s speed filter at the time of an incident.
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If you were injured (or a loved one died) as a result of a car accident that may have been due to a driver or passenger using Snapchat, filing a civil lawsuit could be the best means of recovering compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and emotional trauma.
To file a claim, or if you have questions regarding whether or not you may be eligible for financial compensation, contact our Car Accident Division at 818-322-4056. We’re available 24/7 to answer any questions you have and help recover a maximum damages award for eligible claims.
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