Messaging App Isn’t Liable for an Offline Murder (Even Without Section 230)–Roland v. Letgo
This is a tragic case involving the marketplace app Letgo. Using an alias, Brown listed a stolen car for sale on the app. The Rolands agreed to meet Brown in person to buy the car. At the meeting, Brown tried to rob them at gunpoint. When the husband fought back, Brown shot them both dead. This lawsuit seeks to hold Letgo liable for the murders.
With respect to whether the claims treat Letgo as a publisher/speaker, the court correctly says this case resembles Doe v. MySpace:
Plaintiffs’ claims arise from content Brown provided, including his false name, the working telephone number, and his purported desire to sell a car. Those claims — seeking to hold Letgo responsible for failing to adequately verify the content that was in Brown’s advertisement –are expressly precluded under the Doe v. MySpace analysis.
The Section 230 analysis then goes sideways. Brown used a “verified” account (verification consisted solely of confirming the email address or phone number used for registration), and the court says that Letgo’s “verified” label isn’t third-party info. Thus, per Accusearch, “Plaintiffs have sufficiently pleaded, for a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), that Defendants contributed in part to the allegedly offending ‘verified’ representation.”
Sadly, the court sidesteps the numerous Section 230 cases specifically involving service’s claims of verification or accuracy, such as Milo v. Martin (230 applied) and Mazur v. eBay (230 didn’t). Even though the cases are inconsistent, it would have been far better if the court had directly engaged this precedent rather than approaching this issue on first principles. The court also doesn’t address HomeAway’s 230 exceptions, but it appears Letgo acted like a message board rather than booking the transaction.
Note this ruling implicitly answers one of the questions raised when Musk opened up Twitter’s blue-check “verification” to all comers. If this ruling is correct, 230 will not protect Twitter’s verification. However, I think 230 should still protect Twitter for the third-party content published via verified accounts.
Common Law Claims
The plaintiffs got around Section 230, but they are no closer to winning. The court gets to the point: “Plaintiffs have not cited a single case in which a court held an internet platform potentially liable for violent criminal acts perpetrated by a platform user who lured an innocent consumer into a scheme through means of misrepresentations made by the criminal. It would be too much of a stretch under their tort and CCPA theories to do so here.”
The nonfeasance claim doesn’t fit into any of the recognized templates. There’s also the obvious causation problem: “no reasonable jury could conclude Defendants were the ‘predominant cause’ of the Rolands’ deaths. Under any analysis, the predominant and intervening cause was Brown’s independent actions.”
The fraud claim fails because “it would be pure speculation as to what that term ‘Verified with [phone number]’ meant to the Rolands.”
The consumer protection act claim fails because “Plaintiffs do not sufficiently allege that Defendants misrepresented what their verification process entailed. It is clear from the record that there is no factual basis for alleging that Letgo knew anything in the Brown ad was a lie, or that it acted recklessly or willfully, intending to induce the Rolands to transact with Brown.”
I reiterate my periodic reminder that “fixing” 230 would not change the outcome of this case. It would just mess up 230. If you want justice for the Rolands, don’t look to Section 230 reform as the solution. Meanwhile, Brown was convicted of murder.
In 2018, I blogged about Lee v. OfferUp, a similar case involving online listings and an offline robbery where Section 230 was dispositive. In the same genre is Rodriguez v. OfferUp, Inc., 2019 WL 13247290 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2019), a 2019 case that just showed up in my alerts. The Rodriguez case similarly applied Section 230 to the online listings/offline robbery situation. The court says:
Rodriguez attempts to plead around the fact that he is trying to hold OfferUp responsible for content published by its users by asserting failure to warn and fraud claims. Courts in other jurisdictions have addressed this artful pleading tactic and explained why it also fails under the CDA if the warning is about user-generated content because it still goes to the heart of “publishing functions.”
A reminder: if you are meeting someone offline after connecting with them online, please stay safe!