Lawsuit Claims Social Networking Site Breached Duty of Care Obligation
74-year-old Cleveland retiree Robert Godwin Sr. was shot to death last Easter in a video that was broadcasted on Facebook. Now his family has filed a lawsuit claiming the social networking site’s data mining feature should have been utilized to warn of disturbing posts that threaten violence.
The shooter, 37-year-old Steve Stephens, killed himself two days after the homicide while being chased by police. Stephens had allegedly posted on Facebook that he had lost everything due to a gambling addiction and began to share disturbing sentiments related to his gambling debts, relationship troubles and murderous intentions leading up to the random killing of Godwin.
“I not going to go into details, but I’m a my breaking point I’m really on some murder shit. FB you have 4 minutes to tell me why I shouldn’t be on death row!!!! I’m dead serious #teamdeathrow” the man posted on his page just prior to the shooting.
After receiving no such response from the networking site’s administrators, Stephens randomly approached Godwin, a father of ten, who was out collecting cans in a plastic shopping bag in the city’s Glenville neighborhood. With a cellphone camera in one hand and a gun in the other, Stephens shoved the gun in Godwin’s face and shot him to death. The suspect then spent two days on the run, setting off a manhunt that made international headlines. Stephens shot himself as officers approached his vehicle in Erie, Pennsylvania.
According to the lawsuit, the information the social networking site collects on its users enables Facebook to generate billions of dollars in profits. Along with this business decision comes a duty of care obligation that was breached when it took no action in response to Stephens’ threat. Therefore, Facebook and related defendants that assist with the data mining process were negligent. The lawsuit, which seeks wrongful death damages, specifically alleges:
1 – On April 16, 2017, the Facebook Defendants, through their own conduct of mining, collecting, assessing, controlling and/or analyzing information from their users in furtherance of their commercial enterprise as described herein, had actual and/or constructive knowledge/notice that one of their users, Steve Stephens, had engaged in criminal conduct by making intimidating and coercive threats of violence;
2 – The Facebook Defendants took no action in response to the information they collected despite having prior knowledge/notice of Mr. Stephens’ ownership and use of firearms which were suggestive of his violent tendencies;
3 – A few minutes later, the Facebook Defendants, again through their own conduct as described herein, had actual and/or constructive knowledge/notice that Steve Stephens was not willing to wait any longer for a response from Facebook before he began his criminal activity;
4 – The Facebook Defendants took no action in response to the information they collected;
5 – As time passed, the Facebook Defendants, again through their own conduct as described herein, had actual and/or constructive knowledge/notice that Steve Stephens’ criminal activity was imminent when he engaged in further criminal conduct by reiterating his intent to commit random acts of murder on the public and he specifically identified himself and his location;
6 – The Facebook Defendants took no action in response to the information they collected;
7 – Thereafter, the Facebook Defendants, again through their own conduct as described herein, had actual and/or constructive knowledge/notice that Steve Stephens had murdered Robert Godwin Sr, on the public streets, just minutes from the location where he previously advised the Facebook Defendants of his criminal intentions;
8 – Still, the Facebook Defendants took no action in response to the information they collected. However, the Facebook Defendants possessed this knowledge, and the ability to alert law enforcement, with more than sufficient time to act and prevent Robert Godwin, Sr.’s death.
Facebook associate general counsel Natalie Naugle gave the following statement on behalf of the social networking site in response to the filing: “We want people to feel safe using Facebook, which is why we have policies in place prohibiting direct threats, attacks, serious threats of harm to public and personal safety and other criminal activity. We give people tools to report content that violates our policies and take swift action to remove violating content when it’s reported to us. We sympathize with the victim’s family, who suffered such a tragic and senseless loss.”
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