Snapchat and the Distracted Teen


In 2015, a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Iowa revealed that over 50% of the 1,700 car accidents surveyed, involved distracted teenagers at the wheel. Snapchat has come under fire by the media recently due to at least two car accidents that occurred while drivers were using the App during the operation of their vehicle. Christal McGee was using the app and speeding the night she crashed into Maynard Wentworth, the Uber driver she severely injured. Snapchat has a variety of filters that alter the pictures taken or used with the app. One such filter is the ‘speed’ filter, where it shows the current speed of the person using the app. McGee pushed her car to over 100 mph in order to take a picture and then apply the filter.

Wentworth and his wife are suing Snapchat Inc. for negligence causing this crash. The Complaint alleges that Snapchat Inc. should have deleted the ‘speed’ filter after a similar accident occurred in September of 2015. Perhaps a better argument would also allege that this is a products liability issue, where Snapchat Inc. has both failed to inform the user of the risks involved with using the filter or that the filter was inaccurate in its application (the reports suggest that the filter showed 113 mph when McGee was travelling about 107 mph). Further, Snapchat Inc. has a duty to protect its users by placing a label or warning admonishing the use of the ‘speed’ filter whilst driving or operating a vehicle. An example of a label would be on a trampoline, where it would include a warning that users with ankle or foot injuries should either avoid using the trampoline or take extra care while using it. If the user chooses the latter, then they have assumed the risk of its use.

But should Snapchat Inc. be held liable for the actions of its users? Wentworth and his wife clearly seem to think so. However, these types of lawsuits are generally for one thing: money. McGee is a teenager, and she most likely does not have the money to pay for Wentworth’s medical bills and “permanent brain damage.” But who does? – Snapchat Inc. This is a standard feature for negligence cases. Whether this makes it to a jury trial or settle, it has a good chance for Wentworth to collect money for his loss in ability. But in the alternative, did Snapchat really encourage McGee to drive that fast? Without definitive proof – no. McGee should be held liable for breaking the law because she made a conscious decision to break those laws she is subject to and thus, should be punished.

Additionally, does Snapchat owe a legal duty to the third-party injured by a person who misuses their app? Is there any other purpose for the speed filter? In Snapchat’s defense, it could argue that the intent of the speed filter would have been for the legitimate purpose of measuring walking or jogging speed and not for driving speed. But a judge may not see it that way in the future and may actually hold the company liable in the upcoming lawsuit. The logic would similar to drunk driving issues: if a bartender served a drunk driver too much alcohol, and the driver causes an accident, then the bartender would face a third party action. Here, the idea would be that Snapchat was ‘encouraging’ people to go faster on their speed filter and because an accident occurred because of the user, Snapchat may be held liable as the third-party.

Waze, another app available for download, does not allow the user to utilize the app if they are moving in a vehicle. (Waze is a map/traffic app that gets you to your destination similar to Apple Maps and Google Maps). Snapchat includes a disclaimer on the app for the first time the user scrolls to the speed filter. However, as recently as March 2016, Snapchat’s updates include a warning message appearing whenever the user is moving over 15 mph with the filter option. Snapchat has gone so far as to include a separate filter labelled “I Won’t Snap and Drive,” an effort to promote safe driving practices.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the behavior that McGee exhibited after the crash. Not only did she attempt to post with the speed filter on, but after the incident, in which she hit her head against her own windshield, she promptly posted a picture of her injuries with the text “Lucky to be alive.” Regardless of the outcome, technology companies that have phone apps are on alert and are awaiting the result of this case or non-case. The repercussions are dire, and many other apps are including the disclaimers and warnings as an effort to protect themselves as remedial measures.