Can a Car Accident Victim Sue the Maker of a Phone App that the Driver was Using at the Time of the Crash?

While driving over 100 miles per hour, a motorist rear-ended a car driven by the plaintiff, causing him to suffer severe injuries. When the crash happened, the driver was using a “Speed Filter” feature within Snapchat to record her real-life speed on a video that she could then share with other Snapchat users.

The plaintiff and his wife sued the driver and Snapchat, alleging that it negligently designed the Speed Filter. The trial court dismissed the claim against Snapchat, and after the Court of Appeals affirmed, the plaintiff appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. That Court reversed the Court of Appeals, explaining:

[A] manufacturer has a duty under our decisional law to use reasonable care in selecting from alternative designs to reduce reasonably foreseeable risks of harm posed by its products. When a particular risk of harm from a product is not reasonably foreseeable, a manufacturer owes no design duty to reduce that risk. How a product was being used (e.g., intentionally, negligently, properly, improperly, or not at all) and who was using it (the plaintiff or a third party) when an injury occurred are relevant considerations in determining whether a manufacturer could reasonably foresee a particular risk of harm from its product. Nevertheless, our decisional law does not recognize a blanket exception to a manufacturer’s design duty in all cases of intentional or tortious third-party use.

The Supreme Court found that the plaintiff adequately alleged that Snapchat could reasonably foresee the particular risk of harm from the Speed Filter. The case was sent back to the Court of Appeals for a decision.

Was Negligent Design the Proximate Cause of the Plaintiff’s Injuries?

Presiding Judge Sara Judge Doyle explained that the Supreme Court instructed the Court of Appeals to address the trial court’s alternative basis for granting Snapchat’s motion to dismiss. That was whether the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint, even when taken as true at the motion to dismiss stage, failed to support an inference that Snapchat’s allegedly negligent design was the proximate cause of his injuries.

A breach of a duty constitutes a proximate cause of an injury only if the injury is the “probable” result of the breach, “according to ordinary and usual experience,” as opposed to “merely [a] possible” result of a breach, “according to occasional experience.” We have explained that it is important to recognize that “probable,” in the rule as to causation, does not mean “more likely than not” but rather “not unlikely”; or, more definitely, “such a chance of harm as would induce a prudent man not to run the risk; such a chance of harmful result that a prudent man would foresee an appreciable risk that some harm would happen.”

What is an Intervening Cause?

The Court explained that under “the well-established doctrine of intervening causes,” a defendant’s breach of a duty doesn’t constitute a “proximate cause” of a plaintiff’s injury when there’s intervened between the act of the defendant and the injury to the plaintiff, an independent act or omission of someone other than the defendant, which was not foreseeable by [the] defendant, was not triggered by [the] defendant’s act, and which was sufficient of itself to cause the injury.

The proximate-cause inquiry asks whether “a prudent [manufacturer] would foresee an appreciable risk that,” as a result of an unreasonable design decision, “some harm would happen” “according to ordinary and usual experience.”

Here, the plaintiff alleged that Snapchat designed and distributed a feature known as the Speed Filter for Snap’s social media application:

Also, according to the complaint, Snapchat created built-in rewards or incentives to use its product in excessive or dangerous ways, and it purposefully designed its application to encourage that behavior. These designs encouraged dangerous behavior among its mostly-young user base, and before the accident in this case, Snapchat was aware that many users were driving in excess of 100 miles per hour to record excessive speeds and share them among their peers.

The plaintiff alleged that the design of the Speed Filter dangerously affects the driving behavior of its users, including the driver in this case.

Judge Doyle found that here the complaint alleged that the driver who hit the Plaintiff was motivated by the Speed Filter, as her passenger explained: “[Despite being asked to slow down, s]he was just trying to get the car to 100 [mph] to post it on Snapchat. She said, ‘I’m about to post it.’”

The driver was also heard saying, “Let’s see how fast we can go! I want to hit 100,” as she accelerated the car to 100 mph.

The complaint alleged that the other driver was driving so fast, she couldn’t react in time when the plaintiff turned onto the roadway traveling in the same direction. At that point, the other driver rammed into the back of the plaintiff’s car at 107 mph.

Based on these facts as alleged, Judge Doyle and the Court of Appeals held that a finder of fact could infer that Snapchat’s Speed Filter was a proximate cause of the collision. As outlined above, the complaint points to evidence that could be introduced to show an explicit causal connection between the driver’s conduct and the Speed Filter.

Because of the way that the Speed Filter allegedly encourages reckless behavior and given the facts to support an inference that this occurred in this case, the complaint adequately stated a case alleging a negligent design causing “such a chance of harmful result that a prudent [manufacturer] would foresee an appreciable risk that some harm would happen.”

Was There an Intervening Cause in the Accident?

The Court of Appeals also said that Snapchat couldn’t escape potential liability at this stage by characterizing the other driver’s wrongful conduct as an intervening cause of the collision. Judge Doyle explained that the intervening act rule didn’t insulate the defendant if she had reasonable grounds for appreciating that such wrongful act would be committed. In other words, if the character of the intervening act claimed to break the connection between the original wrongful act, and the subsequent injury was such that its probable or natural consequences could reasonably have been anticipated by the original wrong-doer, the causal connection wasn’t broken. As a consequence, the original wrong-doer is responsible for all of the consequences resulting from the intervening act.

Because the plaintiff’ complaint alleged facts that, if proven, sufficiently demonstrated that Snapchat’s negligent design proximately caused the plaintiff’ injuries, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment granting Snapchat’s motion to dismiss on proximate cause grounds. Maynard v. Snapchat, Inc., 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 37 (Ga. App. January 25, 2023).

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