On March 15, 2022, the Georgia Supreme Court revived a negligent design claim that had been brought against Snapchat, Inc. (n/k/a Snap, Inc.) involving Snap’s “Speed Filter.” As one of the few decisions across the country addressing products liability law in the context of platform “products” (more accurately categorized as services) such as Snapchat, the opinion provides a glimpse of the sort of issues that other courts may soon be required to address.
The Factual & Procedural Background:
Plaintiffs Wentworth and Karen Maynard alleged that Defendant Christal McGee was using Snapchat’s “Speed Filter” and driving over 100 miles per hour when she rear-ended them, causing severe injuries. The “Speed Filter” is a feature that allows the user to record their real-life speed on a photo or video and share it with other users. Plaintiffs sued Snap as well, alleging that Snap had negligently designed the “Speed Filter” because the filter promoted unsafe driving and encouraged dangerous behavior.
Snap moved to dismiss the negligent design claim, arguing it had no legal duty to prevent a driver from driving recklessly or negligently and that McGee’s speeding or inattention was an intervening cause that broke the causal chain. The trial court agreed with both arguments and dismissed the claim against Snap. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal on the basis that Snap did not owe a legal duty to the Maynards but did not address proximate causation. The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Georgia Supreme Court’s Decision:
A divided Georgia Supreme Court reversed the dismissal on the basis of legal duty and remanded the case for further consideration of the proximate causation issue. The Court reasoned that, under Georgia law, a manufacturer’s duty to use reasonable care in selecting from alternative designs is triggered only by reasonably foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product. The Court held the plaintiffs had adequately alleged, at the motion-to-dismiss stage, a reasonably foreseeable harm — namely, “injury to a driver resulting from another person’s use of the Speed Filter while driving at excess speed.” In particular, the Court observed that the plaintiffs had alleged Snap:
- Knew other drivers were using the Speed Filter while speeding at 100 miles per hour or more as part of a game;
- Purposefully designed its products to encourage such behavior;
- Knew of at least one other instance in which a driver who was using Snapchat while speeding caused a car crash; and
- Warned users not to use the product while driving.
The Court held that Plaintiffs’ allegations, if true, could establish Snap continued to develop its product and release new versions of the software after obtaining real-world information about how the Speed Filter was in fact being used. Finally, the Court concluded that Georgia law does not hold, per se, that a manufacturer can never have a duty to use reasonable care in designing its products if a third party used a product intentionally and tortiously. Rather, a third party’s intentional or tortious misuse is just one consideration in determining whether the manufacturer owes a duty, whether it breached that duty, and whether the manufacturer was the proximate cause of the resulting injury.
Despite the reversal on legal duty, this appeal lives on. Following the remand, the Georgia Court of Appeals must now determine whether the trial court erred in dismissing the claims against Snap for lack of proximate causation. The Maynard opinion foreshadows that Snap’s out-of-state authority raises considerations that are highly relevant to a Georgia proximate-cause analysis. Thus, there is still a possibility Snap’s motion to dismiss will ultimately carry the day.
While the decision in Maynard is interesting, the analysis and result was highly fact-driven and premised on Georgia substantive negligence law. The Georgia Supreme Court distinguished Snap’s out-of-state authority by concluding that those cases focused on considerations that were relevant to a Georgia proximate-cause analysis — not a Georgia duty analysis. Therefore, this dismissal may yet be upheld on appeal for lack of proximate causation.
It is worth noting that although the Maynard Court declined to treat platform services any differently than other products, whether products liability law should even apply to these platforms remains an open question in many jurisdictions. Thus, Maynard illustrates that applying products liability concepts to applications, if at all, is still unsettled and may be highly fact- or state-law dependent. Whether Maynard finds traction in cases involving different state law, different services, and different facts remains to be seen.