California Team Secures Dismissal of Wrongful Death Suit Against Social Networking Website
Walnut Creek, Calif. (August 28, 2019) - In a closely watched case having substantial implications on the potential liability of websites for content provided by its users, Walnut Creek Partner Shawn A. Toliver, San Diego Appellate Practice Partner Jeffry A. Miller, San Francisco Partner David E. Russo, and Orange County Associate Justin S. Kim recently prevailed in an appeal of a judgment following the district court’s granting of a motion to dismiss in favor of our client, the owner of a social networking website.
The plaintiff alleged that her son met a drug dealer through our client’s website, purchased fentanyl from the drug dealer, and died of an overdose. In connection with his sentencing for murdering the plaintiff's son, the drug dealer stated that he sold fentanyl to purchasers he initially communicated with on the website. The plaintiff's complaint alleged that the website encouraged criminal activity and that the website facilitated drug-related communications between its users through sophisticated algorithms intended to monetize the content provided by its users.
In a unanimous published opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling from the Northern District of California, dismissing all claims in the complaint. The panel found that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and rejected the plaintiff’s argument that providing recommendations to users amounted to the creation and development of illegal content. The Ninth Circuit determined that the website provided neutral tools to facilitate its user’s communications. The panel’s ruling also adopted our position that the plaintiff’s claim for failure to warn was subject to dismissal on the grounds that a website does not owe a duty of care to its users when it facilitates communications in a content-neutral fashion.
In a statement to press following the decision, Mr. Miller noted that both the firm and our client “certainly recognize the tragic circumstances presented in this case and feel for plaintiff and her family. However, at the same time, we agree strongly with the decision made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ... and the importance of immunity provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.”
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