The Georgia Supreme Court recently revived a personal injury lawsuit that blamed Snapchat for a horrific 2015 car crash that led to a traumatic brain injury and criminal charges.
Let’s take a closer look at the accident, the lawsuit, and what the Georgia Supreme Court decision might mean for future lawsuits against social media companies.
What is Snapchat’s speed filter?
Snapchat is a social media application that allows users to send pictures and videos that are only available for a short period of time (usually 10 seconds).
Snapchat users can select from a number of filters that modify their pictures or videos. For example, a filter might change the color of a photograph or add a wave effect to a video. In 2013, Snapchat introduced a new filter that allowed users to record their real-life speed on a photo or video that they could then share with other Snapchat users.
Safety advocates immediately raised concerns about the filter. Nevertheless, Snapchat refused to remove the filter from its application until 2021.
“The feature is barely used by Snapchatters,” said a spokesman for Snapchat. “In light of that, we are removing it altogether.”
The 2015 accident
On September 10, 2015, 18-year-old Christal McGee rear-ended a car driven by Wentworth Maynard. Christal was traveling 107 miles per hour at the moment of impact (the speed limit was 55 miles per hour). Wentworth’s vehicle was pushed off the road and into an embankment. He suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the crash.
Seconds before the crash, Christal allegedly told the three passengers riding in her Mercedes that she wanted to “get the car to 100 miles per hour to post it on Snapchat” using Snapchat’s speed filter. At least one of the passengers pleaded with Christal to slow down.
Following the crash, Christal posted a post-crash selfie on Snapchat with the tagline “lucky to be alive.” She was later charged with a felony for causing a serious injury with a vehicle under Georgia Criminal Code Section 40-6-394.
The personal injury lawsuit filed by Wentworth Maynard
Wentworth Maynard filed a personal injury lawsuit against Christal McGee for negligence. The lawsuit sought economic damages, non-economic damages, and punitive damages.
Wentworth also filed a lawsuit against Snap Inc. (“Snap”), the social media company that developed Snapchat. The lawsuit against Snap alleged that the company negligently designed the speed filter.
A defective design lawsuit is filed when a product is unreasonably dangerous by design. In other words, even if it’s manufactured according to its specifications, the product is inherently dangerous. Often, courts will look at whether the product could have been designed in a way that was safer to use while still serving its intended purpose.
According to the lawsuit:
“[Snap] designed its products to encourage dangerous behaviors and could reasonably foresee that the speed filter was motivating, incentivizing, or otherwise encouraging its users to drive at excessive dangerous speeds in violation of traffic and safety laws.”
The trial court dismissed the defective product lawsuit, reasoning that Snap didn’t owe a legal duty to Wentworth because Snap’s duty to design reasonably safe products didn’t extend to people injured by a third party’s intentional and wrongful misuse of the product.
On March 15, 2022, the Georgia Supreme Court overruled the trial court.
The Georgia Supreme Court held that manufacturers have a duty to use reasonable care to reduce reasonably foreseeable risks of harm posed by their products. What’s more, the law does not recognize a blanket exception to this duty in all cases of intentional or wrongful third-party use.
Regardless, the Georgia Supreme Court explained that Wentworth must prove that Snap’s negligent design was the proximate cause of his alleged injuries. The Court remanded the lawsuit to the intermediate appeals court to determine if the trial court erred in granting judgment to Snap on the proximate cause issue.
The lawsuit is currently pending.
Implications for future car crashes caused by social media applications
Historically, courts have been reluctant to hold smartphone manufacturers liable for distracted driving crashes. However, Wentworth’s attorney believes this case is different. In short, Wentworth’s attorney believes that while smartphones must balance the potential risks with the potential benefits when designing a phone, there’s simply no good reason for something like a speed filter to exist.
There is currently one other lawsuit pending that accuses Snap’s speed filter of causing a car crash.
Social media applications are becoming more and more popular. There are currently more than 2.8 million apps available for download.
This lawsuit could provide a roadmap for establishing (or avoiding) liability, as future plaintiffs’ lawyers contemplate filing claims against social media companies.