Communications Decency Act Does Not Bar Claims Against Social Media Companies Due To Mass Shooting

Client Alert

A New York State trial court has held, in Patterson et al. v. Meta Platforms, Inc. et al., that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) does not preclude, as a matter of law, claims asserted against various social media companies, including Meta, Snap, Alphabet, Google, YouTube, Discord, Reddit and Amazon, relating to a racially motivated 2022 mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. 

In May 2023, a victim and estate representatives and heirs of victims of a mass shooting at Topps Friendly Market in Buffalo sued, among others, various social media companies alleging that the “defective and unreasonably dangerous design” of the social media companies’ “defective products”—which the complaint identified as including Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, Snapchat, Discord and Reddit—facilitated the shooter’s murderous conduct. According to the plaintiffs, shooter Payton Gendron indicated that he was radicalized and motivated by racist, antisemitic and violence promoting material he saw on the internet, and such radicalization “was the foreseeable consequence of the defendant social media companies’ conscious decision to design, program and operate platforms and tools that maximize user engagement (and corresponding advertising revenue) at the expense of public safety.” Based on those allegations, among others, plaintiffs asserted numerous causes of action against the social media defendants, including, but not limited to, for strict product liability, negligence, negligent failure to warn, unjust enrichment and infliction of emotional distress.

The social media defendants moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims, asserting, among other things, that Section 230 of the CDA immunized them from liability. The CDA provides, inter alia, that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It also states that “[n]o cause of action may be brought, and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.” According to the social media defendants, the CDA barred plaintiffs’ claims because, inter alia, they sought to treat the social media defendants as publishers of the purportedly harmful third-party content at issue, and courts have uniformly held that the CDA precludes claims seeking to impose liability upon online service providers for allegedly “inspir[ing] violence” by publishing “objectionable third-party content.” Plaintiffs disagreed, arguing, among other things, that the CDA did not preclude their claims because plaintiffs’ claims (1) arose from the social media defendants’ alleged breach of their “duty to design reasonably safe social media products,” not from publishing third-party content, and (2) were based on the social media defendants’ role, not as a publisher, but as the “designer, developer, marketer, distributor and operator of defective and/or inherently dangerous products.”

In holding that plaintiffs’ claims, as alleged, were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, the court explained that, under the relevant rules governing motions to dismiss, “at this stage of the litigation the Court must base its ruling on the allegations of the complaint and not ‘facts’ asserted by the defendants in their briefs or during oral argument and those allegations allege viable causes of action under a products liability theory.” However, in doing so, the court acknowledged that it “may ultimately prove true” that the social media platforms at issue “are mere message boards and/or do not contain algorithms subjecting [the social media defendants] to the protections of the CDA.” The court also recognized that the social media defendants may “establish that their platforms are not products or that the negligent design features plaintiffs have alleged are not part of their platforms.” 

Why it matters

It appears to be the first time a New York state court has held that the CDA does not prevent claims against social media companies arising out of a mass shooting, which are allegedly based on a products liability theory, from proceeding to discovery. However, the social media defendants have already filed notices of appeal of the decision. Moreover, while the complaint may have survived a motion to dismiss, the social media defendants will presumably continue to assert a vigorous defense, including, but not limited to, arguing that the CDA precludes liability even to the extent plaintiffs’ claims are asserted based on a products liability theory. 



pursuant to New York DR 2-101(f)

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