Judge Allows Lawsuit Against Snap for Fentanyl Deaths to Move Forward

A lawsuit blaming Snapchat for a series of drug overdoses among young people can proceed, a Los Angeles judge ruled this week. A group of family members related to children and teens who overdosed on fentanyl sued Snapchat maker Snap last year, accusing the social media company of facilitating illicit drug deals involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times deadlier than heroin. In the ruling on Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff rejected Snap’s effort to get the case dismissed. Riff did dismiss four counts against Snap but overruled the company’s efforts to throw out more than 10 others, including negligence and wrongful death. The depth of disagreement is revealed by the parties’ inability jointly to label Snap’s social media presence and activities: “service,” “app,” “product”, “tool,” “interactive course of conduct,” “platform,” “website,” “software” or something else.

A judge in Los Angeles has made a ruling this week that allows a lawsuit against Snapchat maker Snap to move forward. The lawsuit was filed by a group of family members who tragically lost children and teens to drug overdoses, claiming that the social media platform facilitated illegal drug deals involving fentanyl.

The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is known to be many times deadlier than heroin and is often disguised and sold as other substances. It’s frightening to know that even a small amount of 2 milligrams, which is equivalent to around 10 grains of salt, can be lethal.

The family members involved in the lawsuit are being represented by the Social Media Victims Law Center, a law firm that specializes in holding social media companies legally accountable for the harm they inflict on vulnerable users. According to the firm, their goal is to make these companies responsible for their actions.

“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 Matthew P. Bergman, founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2022 and was amended last year. It alleges that executives at Snap were aware that the unique features of Snapchat, such as disappearing messages, were creating a safe haven for the sale of illegal drugs.

This week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff rejected Snap’s attempt to have the case dismissed. Snap’s lawyers argued that the company should be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability for user-generated content.

“Courts in California and the Ninth Circuit have explicitly held that Section 230 immunity applies to communications about illegal drug sales and their sometimes-tragic consequences – the exact circumstances here – because the harm flows from third-party content that was exchanged by third parties on the defendant’s social media platform,” Snap’s lawyers argued in their brief last year.

While Judge Riff did dismiss four counts against Snap, he also overruled their efforts to dismiss more than 10 others, including negligence and wrongful death. He also addressed the relevance of Section 230 to the case, but did not definitively state that it should protect Snap:

“Both sides contend that the law is clear and the legal path forward obvious. Not so. The depth of disagreement is revealed by the parties’ inability jointly to label Snap’s social media presence and activities: ‘service,’ ‘app,’ ‘product,’ ‘tool,’ ‘interactive course of conduct,’ ‘platform,’ ‘website,’ ‘software’ or something else.

“What is clear and obvious is that the law is unsettled and in a state of development in at least two principal regards (1) whether ‘section 230’ (a federal statute) immunizes Snap from potential legal liability under the specific allegations asserted and (2) whether concepts of strict products liability – usually applicable to suppliers of tangible products – already do or now should extend to specified alleged conduct of Snap.”

This interpretation is likely to spark controversy and joins a recent trend of judges allowing lawsuits to proceed, even if they could potentially be dismissed under Section 230.

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Kira Kim

Kira Kim is a science journalist with a background in biology and a passion for environmental issues. She is known for her clear and concise writing, as well as her ability to bring complex scientific concepts to life for a general audience.

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