A California state judge has found that the parents of children who died from drugs purchased over Snapchat may take their claim against the social media company to trial.
According to NBC News, the lawsuit was first filed in October 2022. It represents the parents, and other relatives, of children who died from fentanyl overdoses. In their complaint, the plaintiffs claimed that Snapchat’s “disappearing message” feature facilitates illicit activity, including the clandestine sale of controlled substances.
“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 lawsuit alleges.
By letting users enable a disappearing message feature—which automatically erases all communications sent within a pre-specified time period—attorneys claim that drug dealers and other criminals were afforded a significant layer of protection.
“Snapchat is the go-to means to distribute drugs to children, teens, and young adults through social media, and is involved in a far greater number of fentanyl poisoning deaths of U.S. teens than other social media apps,” it states.
However, as NBC News notes, social media companies have broadly—and successfully—sought protection from consumer-related lawsuits under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which holds that technology companies are not typically liable for content and activities posted to their platforms. But, unlike many failed complaints, this lawsuit seems to have sidestepped Section 230 in its entirety.
An attorney for the plaintiffs has since praised the court’s ruling, seeming to characterize it as historically significant.
“We’re gratified that the court will allow parents to seek accountability for the death of their children to fentanyl overdose,” said Matthew Bergman, an attorney for the plaintiffs and principal at the Social Media Victims Center. “This is the first time in history that a social media company ahs been subjected to claims that it facilitated illegal and fatal drug sales.”
Bergman said that, with the case cleared to proceed to trial, that “we will be able to shed light on this scourge of fentanyl poisonings.”
A spokesperson for Snap has since said that 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.”
But, this notwithstanding, the company indicated that it does not believe that the parents’ claims have legal or factual merit.
“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,” the spokesperson added.
Bergman, for his part, has emphasized that—for all its rhetoric—Snap has refused repeated opportunities to improve safety across Snapchat.
“Snap’s responses have been halting at best,” he said. “Snap has the capability to make its platform substantially safer but refuses to do so because it could reduce profits.”