Social Network Escapes Liability for Drug Overdose

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By Alexis Kramer

A social networking website had no duty to warn a user about another’s criminal activity on the site, a federal district court ruled Nov. 26.

Plaintiff Kristanalea Dyroff sued social network operator Ultimate Software Group Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California after her son died from overdosing on a drug he allegedly bought from a dealer he met on the site. Dyroff brought seven state claims against Ultimate Software, including negligence, wrongful death, and failure to warn ( Dyroff v. Ultimate Software Grp., Inc. , 2017 BL 423558, N.D. Cal., No. 17-cv-05359-LB, 11/26/17 ).

Magistrate judge Laurel Beeler dismissed all but one of the claims under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from liability for the content posted by its users. She dismissed the failure-to-warn claim on substantive grounds.

The decision highlights that immunity for online publishers under Section 230 doesn’t apply to claims that they were negligent in warning users. The court deferred to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Doe 14 v. Internet Brands, Inc. that Section 230 doesn’t protect websites from failure-to-warn claims.

But the court dismissed Dyroff’s failure-to-warn claim because Ultimate Software didn’t have a special relationship with her son, which would have created a duty to protect him from the risks of using the site. A holding that websites did have such a relationship with its users would “render all social-network websites potentially liable whenever they connect their members by algorithm,” the court said.

The court rejected Dyroff’s argument that websites have the same duty that brick-and-mortar businesses owe their customers: to warn them of the risks of using their facilities.

“Risk can be more apparent in the real world than in the virtual social-network world,” the court said. “That seems relevant here, when the claim is that a social-network website ought to perceive risks—through its automatic algorithms and other inputs—about a drug dealer on its site.”

Aylstock Witkin Kreis & Overholtz PLLC, counsel for Dyroff, didn’t immediately respond to a Bloomberg Law request for comment. Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP represented Ultimate Software.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexis Kramer in Washington at akramer@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bob Emeritz at bemeritz@bloomberglaw.com

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