Despite the generally broad legal protections for social networks, Snap can be sued over a Snapchat speed filter that allegedly encouraged reckless driving. The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court reopened a case that had been dismissed in 2020, overturning an earlier decision that favored Snap. It came to the conclusion that even if users were populating the filter with their own high driving speeds, Snap could still be held responsible for implicitly rewarding that behavior.
Lemmon v. Snap was filed after a 20-year-old Snapchat user crashed his car while using the filter, reaching speeds of more than 120 miles per hour at one point. The driver and two teenage passengers were killed in the 2017 collision. Two of the victims’ parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Snap, alleging that its combination of an opaque achievement system and a speed filter enticed users to drive at unsafe speeds.
The parents claimed that many teenagers believed — and that Snap knew they believed — that hitting speeds of 100 miles per hour would earn them a secret achievement. Snap responded that no such accomplishment existed and that it was simply providing a tool for users to post their own content, an action that is mostly protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The Ninth Circuit did not rule on Snap’s liability. However, it concluded that Section 230, which protects websites and apps from being sued over what users post, did not apply in this case. Instead, the lawsuit “presents a clear example of a claim that simply does not rest on third-party content,” according to the court. The reward system and speed filter were “indisputably designed” by the company, which allegedly resulted in a defective product. Snap, Inc. was sued for the predictable consequences of designing Snapchat in such a way that it allegedly encouraged dangerous behavior.”
Last year, a lower court reached a different conclusion. According to legal blogger Eric Goldman, Snapchat called the filter “essentially a speedometer tool” and warned users not to drive at high speeds. According to the lawsuit, Snap is being held liable for a user acting dangerously and posting about it.
The driver allegedly believed Snapchat would award him a trophy for exceeding 100 mph.
Snap’s speed filter has a tumultuous legal history. Separately, an Uber driver sued the company in 2016 after colliding with a Snapchat user who was allegedly trying to hit 100 miles per hour. In that case, a lower court initially sided with the driver, but a Georgia appeals court overturned the decision, stating that Snapchat’s speed filter was not intended to encourage speeding.
The revival of Lemmon v. Snap cites a landmark 2008 ruling against Roommates.com, which found that Section 230 did not apply when the site specifically directed users to answer potentially discriminatory questions like their racial preferences, even if users were the ones providing the answers. Roommates.com won the overall lawsuit, and Snap may win this case, but Lemmon v. Snap would set a precedent for interpreting Section 230 unless the Supreme Court took it up — which it has declined to do in Section 230-related cases thus far.
Some previous high-profile cases essentially argued that a social network is defective for facilitating conduct such as harassment, only to be defeated on Section 230 grounds. However, this ruling suggests that this court may not be sympathetic to those claims. It distinguishes the Snap case from what it refers to as “creative pleading” intended to get around the law, and it applies that label to suits that “at bottom, depended on a third party’s content.” Nonetheless, it is one of the few major court rulings limiting Section 230’s scope — at a time when the law is under increasing scrutiny.