Wrongful Death and Social Networking

The Internet and social networking services make it easier for people to connect and transact business. This also means that it is easier for people to access potentially harmful goods such as illegal drugs. Given the ongoing public health emergency with respect to opioid addiction, can companies that provide online tools to facilitate drug transactions be held legally responsible for the wrongful death of addicts?

Website That Enabled Fatal Drug Deal Immune From Civil Suit

A California judge recently faced this question. The victim in this case was a 29-year-old man who became addicted to opioids following knee surgery. His addiction led him to seek out heroin through a now-defunct social networking service called Project Experience. The defendant, which operated Project Experience, marketed it as a forum for people to anonymously share firsthand experienced “with the least amount of inhibition possible.”

Like many social networking sites, Project Experience used a proprietary algorithm to “data mine” user-generated content and provide recommendations to other users. Here, the algorithm helped steer the victim, via a notification email, to a drug dealer who responded to the victim’s inquiry about where he could “score heroin” in his neighborhood. The victim subsequently acquired heroin laced with fentanyl, a type of opioid, from this dealer and died as the result of an overdose.

The victim’s mother sued the defendant, alleging that it was negligent in allowing Project Experience’s algorithms to “manipulate and funnel vulnerable individual users to harmful drug trafficking groups.” In other words, Project Experience’s software connected the plaintiff’s son with the drug dealer and the drug transaction that ultimately caused his death. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing it was immune from civil liability under the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA essentially provides that the operator of a website is not personally liable for any “third-party content” that it did not create or develop.

The judge agreed that the CDA barred most of the plaintiff’s claims and dismissed the lawsuit. Under the facts of this case, the defendant’s algorithm did not actually “develop” content. Rather, it manipulates content provided by users. And “even when a website collects information about users and classifies user characteristics,” the judge said the operator is still immune from civil suit “even if the tools were used to facilitate unlawful activities on the site.”

Holding Businesses Responsible for Wrongful Death

The CDA has come under increasing fire from the public and policymakers for allowing Internet companies to profit from dangerous and illegal activities. Congress is currently considering legislation that would strip website operators if they host content that facilitates illegal sex trafficking. If this effort succeeds, it could lead to greater scrutiny of CDA protections for websites, like the one in the case above, that enable users to promote the sale of illegal drugs.

If you have lost a loved one and believe that corporate wrongdoing may be to blame, you need to speak with an experienced Pasadena personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. Call Strassburg, Gilmore, & Wei, Attorneys at Law, at (626) 683-9933 today to schedule an initial consultation.

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