Judge allows lawsuit against Snap from relatives of dead children to move forward

A California judge allowed a lawsuit against Snap brought by the relatives of children who overdosed on drugs allegedly purchased using the app to proceed to trial in a ruling Tuesday. 

Relatives of over 60 young people who died from fentanyl overdoses sued Snap in October 2022 over its messaging platform Snapchat’s disappearing message feature. An extended version of the complaint filed in April 2023 said that “Snap and Snapchat’s role in illicit drug sales to teens was the foreseeable result of the designs, structures, and policies Snap chose to implement to increase its revenues.”

The complaint said that Snapchat’s disappearing messages allow those engaging in illegal conduct to obscure their actions. Social media companies have typically been shielded from many lawsuits under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that gives many online tech companies like Snap protection from legal claims stemming from activities that occur on their platforms. However, parts of this lawsuit appear to have sidestepped Section 230 for now.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. 

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence P. Riff overruled Snap’s objections to 12 claims in the suit alleging negligence, defective product, misrepresentation and wrongful death. 

In Tuesday’s order, Riff dismissed four other claims made against Snap in the lawsuit, including allegations that Snap had interfered with parental rights, caused a public nuisance and aided and abetted drug dealers on Snapchat. The latter count was dismissed under Section 230.

“We’re gratified that the court will allow parents to seek accountability for the death of their children to fentanyl overdose,” said Matthew Bergman, the plaintiffs’ attorney and principal at the Social Media Victims Law Center. “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.” 

Bergman said that “we will be able to shed light on this scourge of fentanyl poisonings” as the lawsuit moves forward to discovery.

Some of the parents involved in the lawsuit have advocated for legislation that allows parents to have greater oversight of their kids’ internet activity. Samuel Chapman and Laura Berman, parents to Sammy Chapman, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2021 at age 16, helped develop a bill in August 2022 that would allow parents to track their children online using third-party software.

Snap spokesperson Ashley Adams said the company is “working diligently to stop drug dealers from abusing our platform, and deploy technologies to proactively identify and shut down dealers, support law enforcement efforts to help bring dealers to justice, and educate our community and the general public about the dangers of fentanyl.”

Snapchat said it employs technology that identifies a portion of illicit drug activity before users are able to see and report it. The company also said it blocks search results for drug-related terms.

“While we are committed to advancing our efforts to stop drug dealers from engaging in illegal activity on Snapchat, we believe the plaintiffs’ allegations are both legally and factually flawed and will continue to defend that position in court,” Adams said.

Bergman said, “Snap’s responses have been halting at best.” 

“Snap has the capability to make its platform substantially safer but refuses to do so because it could reduce profits,” he said.