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More on the Snapchat distracted driving case and the issues of causation, foreseeability

Previously, we briefly mentioned a distracted driving case in which the developer of the app Snapchat was held to be immune from liability for a user’s distracted driving accident. Immunity was granted based on a federal law protecting providers and users of interactive computer services from liability for statements made by other content providers.

While the decision was made on the basis of the federal law, we also noted that the issue of causation was also a background consideration. In any tort case, plaintiffs are required to demonstrate not only that the defendant had a legal duty and that the failure to abide by that legal duty resulted in harm, but also that the defendant’s breach of duty was the proximate cause of the harm suffered by the plaintiff. 

Typically, legal causation is expressed in terms of whether or not the harm to the defendant was foreseeable given the plaintiff’s failure to carry out the legal duty. This isn’t always an easy question to answer. The Snapchat case apparently wasn’t based on this consideration because of the application of immunity under federal law in this case, but under New York product liability law, manufacturers have a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in designing a product not only for the product’s intended uses, but also for its foreseeable uses. Snapchat almost assuredly would have had a hard time arguing that using the speed filter while driving a vehicle feature was not foreseeable, especially given the previous accidents that have occurred with the app feature.

Although the court in the Snapchat case seemed to take into account the risk that holding Snapchat liable would open up the floodgates for many other parties to be held liable for distracted driving, it is questionable how far that argument would really go under reasonable jurisprudence on the issue of foreseeability. Would a court really buy the argument, for instance, that a billboard advertiser could be held responsible for distracted driving accidents? Or that a man driving a lawnmower in his underwear could be held liable for causing a distracted driving accident? At some point, the reasonably applied principle of foreseeability would exclude many such possibilities.

The legal issues at stake in the Snapchat case are certainly interesting, and are a reminder of the need for strong advocacy in motor vehicle accident litigation. Working with a skilled and experienced attorney helps ensure that accident victims build the strongest possible legal argument and have the best possible representation in their case.

Source: New York PJI 2:125

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