A new lawsuit was filed against the social media application Snapchat this week. The case involves a high-speed car crash, selfies, and the public health risk embedded in this inherently dangerous app. Lead Attorney Michael L. Neff from Atlanta filed the case in Griffin, Georgia.
What Happened in Hampton, Georgia
At 11:00 p.m. on September 10, 2015, in the Atlanta suburb of Hampton, GA, Christal McGee finished her shift at the restaurant where she worked. She had her dad’s Mercedes, a white c230 that she could borrow when she wanted. She was 18. She agreed to take three of her coworkers home. One sat up front and the other two sat in the backseat. They headed north on Tara Boulevard.
McGee had her phone in her hand, and she started driving fast. One of her coworkers in the backseat was pregnant. She asked McGee to consider this fact and slow down. But McGee was caught up in Snapchat, a smart phone app for sharing photos and videos with friends. She was using the miles per hour filter, which puts the speed you’re going over your image; McGee wanted to post an image of herself going fast. She argued that she was, “Just trying to get the car to 100 miles per hour to post it on Snapchat.”
Meanwhile, Wentworth Maynard, an Uber driver, was beginning his shift. He merged his Mitsubishi Outlander onto Tara Boulevard, a four lane highway that cuts through Hampton’s chain stores and churches and connects commuters with the city. The speed limit on Tara Boulevard is 55.
The passenger in McGee’s Mercedes saw the speed on the Snapchat filter hit 113 miles per hour. McGee said “I’m about to post it.” At that moment, the passengers saw the Mitsubishi ahead and screamed.
McGee was traveling so fast, there was no time to react. Maynard’s car was struck so violently it shot across the left lane into the left embankment. An accident reconstruction calculated the Mercedes’ speed at the moment of impact to have been 107 miles per hour. It crushed the back left side of Maynard’s Outlander and caused trauma to his body and brain that would alter the rest of his life.
The Mercedes spun and came to a stop in the right embankment. The vehicle started smoking but all the passengers got out. McGee had hit her head on the windshield; she and her passengers were treated at Piedmont Fayette Hospital for cuts and bruises. Maynard fared worse.
Instead of going to work that night, Wentworth Maynard began a five week stay in the intensive care unit where he was treated for a severe traumatic brain injury. He breathed with the assistance of a breathing tube and ate with the help of a feeding tube. He spent another six weeks in the hospital in step-down and acute rehab care. Once home, he began a hard-won, ongoing recovery in which, after many months, Maynard is finally able to get up out of bed and feed himself.
Each day he deals with weakness that leaves him dependent on a wheelchair or a walker. He suffers chronic pain from rotator cuff tears across both shoulders. He has tried to recover as much of himself as he can. But Maynard is not himself. His brain injuries have left him with difficulties in communication, memory loss, and depression.
Maynard’s wife Karen remembers a time, not long ago, when her husband was completely independent:
“Wentworth would get up on his own, make his breakfast, go to work and cook dinner. Now he’s so tired he falls asleep in his wheelchair during the day. We used to sit on the sofa and watch TV in the evening, and Wentworth would hug me. Now, he can’t do that anymore.”
Nor can Maynard be left alone; he’s too unsteady on his feet. This incident turned his family members into caretakers.
In the Age of Distracted Driving
1.3 million people were injured in car crashes in the U.S. in 2014. Of these, 431,000 were injured due to distracted driving, i.e., driving while your attention is on something else. The ubiquity of smart phones adds to the potential for distraction. AT&T released a study last year estimating that nearly 4 in 10 smart phone users interact with social media while driving.
We know it’s a problem. We even know it’s dangerous to walk and use a smart phone; state legislators regularly introduce bills to limit this behavior. New Jersey assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt made such a move earlier this month, proposing a $50 fine for walking on public roadways while using your cell phone. If there is concern for smart phones and public safety at the level of the pedestrian, why would Snapchat create a filter that encourages users to showcase their speed?
The Rise of Snapchat
Photos and images taken with Snapchat are supposed to be ephemeral. The golden idea behind the app was to share photos that would disappear after a certain amount of time, rather than having them hang around the Internet forever. Tech journalist Sarah Lacy wrote in 2012 that there was something “beautifully noncommittal” about Snapchat. At its best, it could return the fun to social media, freeing users to express their real selves.
The appeal of such an app was proven quickly, and Snapchat’s story has been one of exponential growth. What started as a school project between three friends at Stanford University in 2011 is now valued at $16 billion.
Despite the app’s quick adoption by millions of users, Snapchat, and its founder Evan Spiegel, have often made headlines for having little concern for anyone else. In late 2013, a hacker exploited a known security loophole in the app, leaving 4.6 million users’ personal information exposed. Snapchat made the news not only for the breach, but for Spiegel’s refusal to apologize or take responsibility for the affair.
Another issue soon came to light, this one more fundamental to Snapchat’s premise: the photos didn’t really disappear. They could be snagged easily through third party apps, or if the person you sent them to took a screen shot. Snapchat promised to let users know if a screen shot was taken, but this wasn’t a promise they could keep. The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the app for misleading consumers in 2014.
The Miles Per Hour Filter
While Snapchat’s brief existence has been marked with dubious developments, there is perhaps nothing more dubious than its creation of the miles per hour filter. Introduced along with a product update in 2013, the miles per hour filter overlays a real-time measurement of the speed the user is traveling on photos and videos.
Subsequent updates have added new emojis for chatting and trophies for collecting. Users can win trophies for interacting with the app in various ways, including sending images using filters. In this way, Snapchat has embedded more incentives into its interface. It’s become more of a game.
Lucky to be alive
Christal McGee posted a picture of herself on Snapchat after her accident with Wentworth Maynard. She was in the ambulance, strapped into a gurney with blood running down her forehead. She wrote a caption: “Lucky to be alive.”
Her image joins a macabre gallery of photos from Snapchat users who captured and shared moments of danger and damage surrounding their use of the app. Last summer, a young woman in Brazil achieved Internet infamy by telling the story of her car accident on Snapchat. She was with her boyfriend, traveling at high speeds while using the miles per hour filter. Like McGee, she posted a post-accident selfie featuring blood on her forehead.
It gets worse. In Manchester, UK, a 19-year-old in an Audi A6 bragged about going 142 mph using the Snapchat mph filter one night in 2014. He killed another driver while going 80 mph the next day. This incident produced a harrowing image of the other driver’s vehicle, which was essentially cut in half.
Which points to one of the most dangerous aspects of Snapchat’s miles per hour feature: it not only puts the public at risk of distracted drivers, it puts us at risk of distracted drivers traveling at very high speeds.
It remains to be seen to what extent Snapchat use is responsible for the traffic deaths of a 30-year-old man who was struck by another driver in Kansas City in March, and three young women who were documenting their day using Snapchat in Philadelphia in December, a day which ended in a devastating and fatal crash.
Professional basketball player Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors was lucky last month when a video he snapped of himself going 118 in his BMW on a Bay Area highway only resulted in bad publicity. Same result for Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons when a Snapchat photo was captured and leaked of him driving at 96 miles per hour.
It’s alarming that people have used Snapchat’s miles per hour filter to document themselves driving at high speeds. But it’s hardly a surprise. The premise of the software is that these just-for-fun images will disappear forever, after all. What is more puzzling is that after evidence has emerged documenting this behavior—a behavior which puts the public at risk for high speed car crashes—Snapchat has shown no concern for public health, neither admitting responsibility nor moving to delete this feature from its app.
It must be asked to what extent Snapchat weighed the risks of its miles per hour filter before releasing it as a product into the stream of commerce. Did its developers consider the impact it could have on the life of someone like Wentworth Maynard?
Or did they not think much of the public at all, figuring some amount of damage would be permissible, the kind of thing Ralph Nader calls the “institutionalized, recurring violence stemming from the activities of the business classes” that’s now seen as incidental to the production of goods and services?
State laws hold that manufacturers are responsible for protecting the public from the risk of harm inherent in a product’s design. The Snapchat miles per hour filter is inherently risky. Will Snapchat finally take responsibility for the products it puts out into the world?
Lead Attorney Michael L. Neff is representing Wentworth Maynard in a civil lawsuit against both Christal McGee and Snapchat. The lawsuit seeks to hold each party responsible for the medical bills and lifelong care Wentworth Maynard now requires.
Attorney Todd Henningsen noted, “I was struck at how Snapchat’s choice to encourage users to record their speed has devastated the Maynard family – especially in light of the epidemic of distracted drivers on our roadways.”
Attorney Michael Terry noted, “Snapchat has an obligation under the law not to place dangerous items into the stream of commerce, and they have a responsibility to act reasonably to take steps to eliminate risks associated with their products.”
“This case is unique in that we have clear evidence linking use of the Snapchat miles per hour filter in the moments leading up to the crash with the kind of grievous harm we know this product is capable of,” said Lead Attorney Michael L. Neff. “It’s our hope that this case will not only garner justice for Mr. Wentworth, but will pressure Snapchat to stop putting the public at risk.”
Passengers Confirm Driver Was Using Snapchat Speed Filter
Since the lawsuit began, news reporters have interviewed the two women riding in the back seat of the Mercedes. Both passengers confirm that McGee was using Snapchat’s speed filter at the time of the wreck.