App design

Fact or filter? Unmasking product liability in app design

A California federal judge has ruled that a social media app developer could be held liable for the negligent design of a speedometer filter if the app’s inherent design encouraged reckless driving resulting in a fatal car accident. .

On March 31, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald of the Central District of California declined to dismiss a case brought by the parents of two young men killed in a car accident against Snap, Inc. for the negligent design and distribution of its Snapchat app.

The Amended Complaint alleges that (1) a Snapchat speedometer filter, or the Speed ​​Filter, allowed its users to record the speed at which they were moving and display that speed in a photo or video that could be shared on social media, (2) the app used gamification techniques to encourage user engagement through trophies, streaks, and social recognition via submitted snaps, (3) however, Snapchat does not say not tell users how to earn these different achievements, so even if there is no reward tied to a given filter, a user will still be motivated to explore the limits of the filter in search of rewards, and (4) young men involved in the accident used the speed filter within minutes of the accident.

Applying California law, Fitzgerald ruled that the allegations, accepted as true, were sufficient to allege that the filter’s inherent design encouraged young men to drive at dangerous speeds and therefore caused the injury in question. He reasoned that if users were trying to get an unknown trophy associated with the filter, it is plausible that they would do so by increasing their speed as that is the only metric recorded by the filter.

Even without the reward system, he noted that the filter itself encouraged reckless driving because “[i]It stands to reason that adding a speed-sharing feature to a social media app used primarily by minors and young adults would encourage those users to record themselves while driving at high speed. Although the defendant argued that users would use the speed filter in safe ways, such as while walking, jogging or taking the train, Judge Fitzgerald found such an argument “highly implausible.”

Fitzgerald’s order denying defendant’s motion to dismiss follows the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s review and reversal of the district court’s previous order barring the plaintiffs’ claim. claimants under the Communications Decency Act, which protects Interactive Computer Services from liability arising from third-party broadcasts. party information.

The Ninth Circuit held that immunity under the CDA was improperly applied to the defendant because the plaintiffs did not seek to hold the defendant liable as a publisher or speaker of third-party content, but rather as a product manufacturer responsible for the negligent design of its product. “This shift from treating defendant as a publisher or lecturer to treating defendant as a manufacturer of products changes the way the Court interprets the claims.[.]”

Following advice from the Ninth Circuit, the court considered this case to be a negligent design case, distinct from negligent advertising cases where, for example, automakers are not seen to have “encouraged” drivers to speed by announcing expressly that their cars go fast. . Consistent with the Ninth Circuit’s warning against treating the defendant as an editor or speaker, the district court ruled that the analysis was not whether the speed filter contained an express incitement to speed. , but rather whether the design of the speed filter inherently encouraged speeding.

Additionally, the district court distinguished this case from distracted driving cases where, for example, cellphone manufacturers are not held liable for creating apps or features that distract drivers, due, in part, , of the public policy concern that cellphone manufacturers are held liable for distracted driving. has considerable implications. The court held that the allegations against the defendant claimed that the design of the speed filter itself encouraged speeding, not that the filter merely distracted the driver.

In accordance with this interpretation, the facts allege that the driver of the vehicle was not even the user of the filter at the time of the accident. The court held that the speed filter may inherently encourage speeding in light of the fact that recording speed is its only function, which is distinct from distracting apps like FaceTime, which serve many other useful purposes. . “It’s extremely predictable that minors and young adults will use the speed filter to record themselves driving at excessive speeds, and even more so if there are potential reward ‘trophies’ for it.”

The district court also declined to dismiss plaintiffs’ claim on the basis of contributory negligence or public policy grounds, deeming such rulings improper in a motion to dismiss.

While it remains to be seen how this case will be decided on its merits, social media companies should remain aware of the risks involved in designing filters and other app features. An important takeaway from this decision is that the Communications Decency Act is not an impenetrable shield from tort liability if a product’s inherent design, distinct from its express disclosures, arguably encourages conduct that results in harm or a wound.

Legal counsel should understand and consider this important distinction, as recognized by the Ninth Circuit and at least one district court, in any advice produced on app features and designs that encourage engagement. users.

Monique Parra is a partner in Pillsbury’s Los Angeles office and focuses her practice on general and complex litigation.