Distracted driving is a leading cause of car accidents. This is why “texting while driving” is illegal in Georgia and many other states. State law expressly forbids anyone from operating a motor vehicle “while using a wireless telecommunications device to write, send, or read any text based communication, including but not limited to a text message, instant message, e-mail, or Internet data.”
Maynard v. McGee and Snapchat, Inc.
When distracted driving does lead to a car accident, the driver may face a personal injury lawsuit from the victims. A lawsuit recently filed in Spalding County, Georgia, raises the novel question of whether a social media company may also be liable for encouraging distracted driving by its users. The lawsuit, which is still in its early stages, has already sparked international media attention.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff was driving his vehicle when he was struck by a Mercedes traveling at 107 miles per hour. The plaintiff said he suffered “permanent brain damage” as a result of injuries sustained in the crash. In addition to suing the driver who hit him, the plaintiff also named the well-known social media company Snapchat, Inc., as a co-defendant.
Snapchat is a popular mobile video and photo sharing service. According to Snapchat’s own marketing materials, “More than 60 percent of U.S. 13 to 34 year-old smartphone users are Snapchatters.” Snapchat encourages users to submit photos using “filters” that add information and effects to images. In December 2013, Snapchat added a “speed” filter that noted how fast a user was going when the image was taken. At the time, one technology journalist observed, “I foresee a whole new sport being made of snaps being sent at the highest possible speeds.”
Indeed, according to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, that is exactly what happened. The lawsuit noted a July 2015 incident where a Brazilian woman posted an image of herself using the speed filter going 110 miles per hour moments before she “wrecked her car suffering serious injuries.” This occurred just two months before the plaintiff was injured by the defendant driver. The plaintiff alleges the July accident and subsequent calls to remove the speed filter gave Snapchat “actual knowledge” that the filter was motivating users to “drive at an excessive speed.” The plaintiff also cited Snapchat’s internal “rewards” system, where users receive “points” and “trophies” (with no monetary value) for posting images of themselves allegedly driving at unsafe speeds.
For its part, Snapchat’s terms of service does state that users should not use its application “in a way that would distract you from obeying traffic or safety laws,” and that nobody should “put yourself or others in harm’s way just to capture a Snap.” Snapchat’s mobile application also reportedly warns individuals not to use the service while driving. Nevertheless, the plaintiff in this lawsuit argues Snapchat’s conduct amounts to “negligence,” which was directly responsible for the car accident and his permanent injuries.