Who’s at fault if you act foolish on apps?


When cars collide, here’s who some victims want to sue: Whoever has the most cash.

Now, personal injury attorneys in Georgia may have found a rich new stash to target.

Their job is made easier when prominent companies do things that might be considered asking for trouble. Like when Snapchat added a feature that could entice people to take photos with their smartphones while driving really fast. On what planet would that not set off warning bells?

The speed filter on the social media app allows users to post photos or video labeled with the miles per hour the phone was moving at the time it was taken. Did I mention that most of Snapchat’s users are in their teens or early 20s?

Which brings us to a lawsuit recently filed on behalf of Wentworth Maynard, a 50-something-year-old Uber driver badly injured in a car accident last year as he pulled out of his apartment complex on Tara Boulevard in Clayton County.

The suit blames both Snapchat and a teenage driver, Christal McGee, who slammed into Maynard’s Mitsubishi. The suit claims McGee was traveling more than 100 mph in her dad’s 10-year-old Mercedes as she tried to use the Snapchat filter to take a picture of herself.

Maynard suffered brain injuries that continue to affect him, according to an online posting by his attorneys. He’s got seven of them representing him.

If the case reaches a jury, the courts will have to sort out the line between personal responsibility and corporate responsibility, which is always an edgy topic.

Parts of this case muddy up the issue. For example, McGee and her three passengers contend that the Uber driver cut across two lanes to get in the fast lane of traffic in front of them.

Also, the passengers differed on other issues, according to initial police and news reports. One said McGee was going over 100 mph. Another said she was going 60-65 mph in a 55 mph zone. Two said McGee was using her phone; One insists she wasn’t. McGee’s father told a local TV station his daughter wasn’t at fault and wasn’t using Snapchat at the time. Neither driver was ticketed by police immediately after the incident, though Channel 2 Action News reports charges have now been filed against McGee.

But the very existence of the suit highlights something else: That not just Snapchat but maybe lots of other app makers might now be viewed as ripe targets for victims and their lawyers.

Some could get swept up in the growing concerns about distracted driving, which is increasingly being portrayed as the sort of immoral equivalent of drunk driving. But the issue for app makers could go beyond that.

I’m wondering what might turn up in other dark corners. After all, there are about 1.5 million apps just on Apple’s App Store, with more being added in the industry every day. I read where Americans use an average of 27 apps a month, according to Activate, a tech consulting firm.

With all that activity, who knows what might get hit next if someone gets hurt in an accident or by a violent stalker or in some other way.

Dating apps that display pictures of nearby people looking for love? Entities like Atlanta-based Yik Yak that have been criticized for allowing anonymous commenting that can get ugly? Traffic apps built on the idea of people in cars reporting traffic problems as they see them?

A Georgia woman recently sued an online dating site for connecting her with a sexual predator, who was later sentenced to prison for raping her during their first meeting.

But as far as suits against app makers, a couple law professors who specialize in product liability told me they couldn’t think of much in the way of cases similar to the one Snapchat faces, at least not tied to distracted driving.

“It has major ramifications potentially,” said Robert Rabin, a Stanford University law professor.

One of the basic questions: Do app makers have a legal responsibility to take precautions to try to prevent the misuse of their products?

The case could affect how apps are designed and what warnings they carry in the future, said Tim Lytton, a professor at Georgia State University’s College of Law.

Snapchat said the Georgia lawsuit includes inaccuracies, such as what it is said is a false implication that users get Snapchat trophies or points specifically for using the speed filter. And it said millions of people have used the filter while passengers — rather than drivers — in everything from cars to planes and boats.

“No Snap is more important than someone’s safety,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We actively discourage our community from using the speed filter while driving, including by displaying a ‘Do NOT Snap and Drive’ warning message in the app itself.”

Actually, Snapchat originally displayed that warning only the first time users tried the speed filter. It was only in March of this year — long after the Georgia accident — that the company set the message to pop up whenever the feature is used at a speed greater than 15 mph.

Joel Feldman, whose daughter died in an accident involving a distracted driver, told me he thinks Snapchat should eliminate the speed feature. He launched a non-profit called EndDD.org to battle distracted driving. He also happens to be a personal injury attorney.

“How are you going to get to 100 miles per hour in a situation that isn’t potentially going to hurt somebody?” he asked me. But he also asked another question that I and many other drivers have to face: Why should any of us be using a smartphone while driving when it isn’t about getting from Point A to Point B?



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