Should Facebook Have a Duty to Report Us to the Police for Felonies Potentially Revealed in Our Posts?
From Godwin v. Facebook, Inc., decided yesterday by the Ohio Court of Appeals (Judge Sean C. Gallagher, joined by Judge Mary J. Boyle):
Robert Godwin, Sr., Godwin’s father, was murdered by Steve Stephens — a video of the murder was briefly posted to Stephens’s social media account, part of the social media network that is owned and managed by Facebook, Inc. Stephens committed suicide two days later. Godwin filed a wrongful death action against Stephens’s estate, all the while maintaining that the estate is merely a “nominal defendant” in the action. In addition, Godwin included allegations against Facebook for its alleged failure to warn Robert Godwin of Stephens’s intention, of which Facebook should have been aware based on a statement Stephens posted before the attack and based on Facebook’s in depth and financially motivated use of its users’ information. On the day of the tragic events, Stephens posted an ominous, but relatively ambiguous, statement on his social media account. In that message, Stephens stated:
FB my life for the pass year has really been fuck up!!! lost everything ever had due to gambling at the Cleveland Jack casino and Erie casino…I not going to go into details but I’m at my breaking point I’m really on some murder shit…FB you have 4 minutes to tell me why I shouldn’t be on deathrow!!!! dead serious #teamdeathrow.
“Minutes” later, Stephens randomly approached Robert Godwin, who was sitting in a local park. Stephens pulled out a handgun and shot him after a brief dialogue.
Plaintiff sued Facebook, on the theories that
- Facebook should have known about Stephens’ dangerousness and should have warned the authorities (as a matter of the common law of negligence) and
- Facebook did know about the specific threat, and Ohio law imposes a duty to report known felonies (such as terroristic threats) to the police: Ohio Rev. Code 2921.22 requires any “person [who] know[s] that a felony has been or is being committed” to “report such information to law enforcement authorities,” and Ohio Rev. Code 2307.60 provides that “Anyone injured in person or property by a criminal act has, and may recover full damages in, a civil action unless specifically excepted by law.”
The panel rejected the negligence claim on the grounds that negligence law generally doesn’t impose affirmative duties on one party to protect another. There are some exceptions
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