A California judge ruled this week that a lawsuit filed by the parents of over 60 teens and young adults who died from fentanyl overdoses can proceed against Snapchat and its parent company Snap Inc.
The lawsuit alleges that Snapchat’s features enabled drug dealers to sell fentanyl-laced pills within the platform, resulting in the deaths of dozens of minors and young adults across the country.
Filed in October 2022 and amended in April 2023, the complaint accuses Snapchat of creating “an online safe haven for the sale of illegal narcotics” through features like disappearing messages, geolocation services, and the “My Eyes Only” privacy option.
These features, the lawsuit alleges, make it easier for drug dealing to take place and harder for illegal activities to be tracked on the platform.
“Long before the fatal injuries giving rise to this lawsuit, Snap knew that its product features were being used by drug dealers to sell controlled substances to minors,” said attorney Matthew Bergman, who is representing the plaintiffs.
Snap Unable to Dismiss Case on the Basis of Section 230 Protections
In his ruling on Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff rejected Snap’s motion to dismiss the case under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the federal law that shields online platforms from liability over user-generated content. Snap (SNAP) had argued that because the alleged drug deals took place between users, Section 230 protects the company.
Judge Riff dismissed four of the claims against Snap but allowed more than a dozen others to move forward, including counts of negligence, defective product, misrepresentation, and wrongful death. He noted that the applicability of Section 230 to this case remains an “unsettled” matter of law that will have to be determined as litigation proceeds.
The decision represents a legal defeat for Snap and a win for the plaintiffs, whose goal is to hold social media companies accountable for their alleged part in the opioid crisis.
“This is the first time in history that a social media company has been subjected to claims that it facilitated illegal and fatal drug sales,” said attorney Bergman, who is principal at the Social Media Victims Law Center, in regard to the ruling.
Snap said in a statement that it is “working diligently to stop drug dealers from abusing our platform” and will continue arguing against the lawsuit’s claims in court.
Section 230 may not apply in this situation because it isn’t really in trouble for illegal content on its platform. Instead, the plaintiffs argue that its features like its disappearing messages that often can’t be read by law enforcement, even with a warrant (unless they haven’t been read yet), and others are directly enabling drug dealing and overdose deaths.
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If the lawsuit succeeds, it could have far-reaching implications for Section 230 protections and change how social media platforms monitor and police activities on their sites. Some tech legal experts say that it opens the door to expanded liabilities for companies like Snapchat if their products are found to enable criminal conduct.
If Snapchat loses, the resulting aftermath could be that other parents and even regulators and advocacy groups could push forward other lawsuits against social media companies for also facilitating illegal activity by using this case as a precedent.
The precedent could also stretch to other platforms with similar technology. In fact, end-to-end encryption messaging platforms like Telegram might be among the next targets as the platforms also enable secret messaging that isn’t viewable by law enforcement in most situations.
The Tragedies Behind the Lawsuit
No matter the result of the lawsuit, it’s important to remember the people behind the lawsuit and the unimaginable pain they are going through. Over 60 families in this case are currently grieving the loss of a loved one and now over 100,000 Americans die of fatal opioid overdoses annually.
The lawsuit centers on the stories of over 60 families across the U.S. who lost children after they purchased fentanyl-laced pills from dealers on Snapchat.
One of those children was 16-year-old Sammy Chapman from Los Angeles, whose parents Laura Berman and Samuel Chapman are part of the lawsuit. According to Berman, Sammy was a charismatic high school junior with dreams of entrepreneurship. But, in January 2021, he purchased what he believed was oxycodone from someone he met on Snapchat. The pill turned out to contain lethal fentanyl and Sammy died of an overdose.
In an interview with ABC News last December, Berman spoke of her grief and her quest to hold Snapchat liable.
Colorado mother Kim Osterman is another plaintiff who lost her 18-year-old son Max after he bought a fentanyl-laced fake Percocet pill on Snapchat in 2021.
“You never want to get a call and be told ‘Look there’s no easy way to tell you but Max is dead,’ and that’s the call I got,” Osterman told CBS Colorado. “As long as social media is going to be around, Snapchat is going to be around, changes need to be made to make it safe”, the grieving mother asserted.
Is Section 230 In Danger?
The lawsuit alleges that Snapchat’s design – especially features like disappearing messages – enables criminal activity in a way that other social media platforms may not. Plaintiffs argue that Snapchat’s product design decisions “directly contributed” to the deadly fentanyl trade targeting minors on their site.
While every major social media platform has been misused, the families of the deceased youngsters claim that Snap created an environment where abuses flourished more than elsewhere. The case could spur calls for reforms of Section 230 to address product design features that magnify harm for unwary teenagers and young adults.
In fact, Section 230 may not even need to be changed for other lawsuits to proceed successfully. If other platforms with features like disappearing messages or end-to-end encryption are found to be facilitating criminal conduct they could also be hit with massive penalties and have essentially no recourse.
They could try to censor suspicious messages and ramp up policing efforts but simple messaging services can only do so much without causing great inconvenience to regular users.
This potential change in precedent could turn out to be one of the most consequential lawsuits for the tech industry in years as Section 230 is absolutely vital for protecting social media platforms from a deluge of lawsuits.
What Happens Next in the Case?
Now that Judge Riff has rejected Snap’s motion to dismiss, the lawsuit moves ahead to the discovery phase as both sides gather evidence.
Snap will likely keep arguing that Section 230 protects them from liability. However, the plaintiffs will attempt to uncover internal documents, data, and testimony that speaks to what Snap executives knew about drug dealing activities within the platform and whether they ignored the harm caused by features that enabled such activities to be carried out by criminals.
As the lawsuit moves forward to this stage, attorney Bergman claimed that the plaintiffs “will be able to shed light on this scourge of fentanyl poisonings”.
The families say that their goal is to hold Snapchat legally accountable in order to compel changes that make the platform safer for minors to help prevent future deaths. They also hope to bring transparency around issues like Snapchat’s algorithms and engagement-based ranking models which they allege promote harmful content.
“The longer they’re gone, the longer their absence is terrible,” said plaintiff Kim Osterman, speaking of her late son Max. “We just want the truth, we want changes”.
The ruling comes amidst growing public concern over the impact that social media platforms like TikTok and Snap have on teen’s mental health and safety. Over the last year, revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and Instagram’s own internal research have already spurred Meta Platforms (META) – Facebook’s parent company – to roll out more parental control features and safeguards to protect teen users.
Now, Snapchat may also be forced to modify its product if the parents in the Neville v. Snap case win and a precedent change could ripple throughout the entire industry.
“Today’s ruling marks the first time a court has allowed parents to hold social media companies accountable for facilitating the sale of deadly drugs,” said attorney Bergman following Tuesday’s decision. “Fentanyl is the largest killer of kids under 18 and social media plays a huge role in the deadly drug sales that have resulted in a 350% increase in teen deaths over the past three years”, the attorney highlighted.