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Parents allowed to sue Snapchat in deadly Walworth Co. crash

(NBC15)
Published: May. 5, 2021 at 5:38 PM CDT
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BURLINGTON, Wis. (WMTV) - The parents of two of people killed in a high-speed crash in Walworth Co. in 2017 will be allowed sue the makers of Snapchat over a filter the parents claim led to their children’s deaths.

Twenty-year-old Landen Brown and Hunter Morby, 17, died in May 2017 when the car they were riding in crashed into a tree in Lyons Township. The vehicle was engulfed in flames by the time deputies made it to the scene.

The Sheriff’s Office investigation indicated the car, driven by Jason Davis, was traveling at a high rate of speed when the 17-year-old Davis lost control and went into a ditch where the vehicle struck the tree.

The lawsuit was filed by the parents of Brown and Morby. Davis’ parents were not named as plaintiffs in the case.

Brown and Morby’s parents allege a Snapchat filter that showed how fast someone was going at the time of their post had encouraged their sons and Davis to accelerate up to 123 mph to take advantage of the filter. Court documents indicate their car was going 113 mph when it left the road.

The lawsuit also cites what the plaintiffs describe as a commonly held belief that Snapchat would reward a user with a virtual recognition such as its “trophies, streaks, or social recognitions” for a post that showed them reaching triple-digit speeds.

While that particular trophy did not actually exist, the lawsuit argues Snapchat was not transparent about what it would take to earn its reward and that Snapchat should have known users believed it existed. The parents cited multiple news reports about the filter encouraging speeding to assert the latter point.

Because of this, the plaintiffs contend Snap, Snapchat’s parent company, should be held liable for creating the filter.

Snap, however, responded by claiming Section 230 provided them immunity from the lawsuit. That provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act prevents digital platforms from being held liable for content posted by users on its website – for example, not being able to sue Facebook or Twitter for a post made by a user or not being able to sue a news site for what someone wrote in its comment section.

A lower court agreed with Snap’s claim of Section 230 immunity and dismissed the case, prompting the appeal to the higher court.

The appellate judges rejected the Section 230 claims, pointing out that the filter was not created by a user of the Snapchat platform, but was rather created by the company itself. In explained that the lawsuit was based on something Snap designed and alleged that it encouraged dangerous behavior and the consequences of the filter were predictable.

“To start, while providing content-neutral tools does not render an internet company a “creator or developer” of the downstream content that its users produce with those tools, our case law has never suggested that internet companies enjoy absolute immunity from all claims related to their content-neutral tools,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote.

The case will now return to district court for further proceedings.

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