In the News Law360

Facebook Beats Suit Over Message Before Ohio Man's Killing

Facebook has been cleared in a suit alleging it failed to alert authorities after a man posted a message with a seemingly murderous intent minutes before he recorded a video of himself killing a random pedestrian, with an Ohio state judge on Friday saying the company is immune under a federal law shielding third-party content publishers.

Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Timothy P. McCormick granted Facebook Inc.'s motion to dismiss in a suit brought by Debbie Godwin accusing the social media giant of negligence for failure to notify law enforcement after Facebook user Steve Stephens posted a message expressing a desire to commit murder due to financial problems caused by gambling losses.

Just minutes after posting the message, Stephens took a cellphone video of himself as he approached 74-year-old Robert Godwin, a man he didn't know, and exchanged a few words before fatally shooting Godwin in the head, according to news reports. The shooter later uploaded the video to Facebook, where it went viral for a period of time before Facebook took it down, according to news reports.

The April 2017 incident — which ended in Stephens' suicide two days later following a police pursuit — drew worldwide news coverage, and it and similar incidents prompted Facebook to hire 3,000 additional content reviewers to help remove objectionable content more quickly.

Debbie Godwin's wrongful death suit against Stephens' estate included claims against Facebook for failing to report a felony to law enforcement. She argued that Facebook shouldn't escape liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which provides immunity for internet companies that publish third-party content — because the company profits off the personal information submitted by users like Stephens and is therefore not a "publisher" as defined by the law.

But Judge McCormick disagreed, saying the data Facebook collects comes from third-parties, and selling it is consistent with the routine functions of publishers.

"This reading of 'publisher' is not only consistent with the plain meaning of publisher, it is consistent with Congress's broad policy purpose, 'to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the internet ... unfettered by federal or state regulation,'" he said in a 37-page ruling.

Debbie Godwin had also argued that Facebook itself is an information content provider, because it uses tools to "develop" third-party information, but the judge said Debbie Godwin fails to describe in detail how that third-party information is repurposed by Facebook.

"Because Godwin's complaint demonstrates that she is seeking to hold Facebook Inc. liable as a publisher, it contains insufficient facts to indicate that Facebook Inc. is responsible for the development of the information it collects; the claims against Facebook Inc. are barred by Section 230," the order states.

Addressing Debbie Godwin's claims that Facebook should be held liable under a common-law duty to warn, the judge said she failed to present any facts showing that the company knew Stephens was capable of violent acts or had indeed committed any violent acts prior to the killing.

Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

Debbie Godwin is represented by Andrew A. Kabat, Richard C. Haber, Daniel M. Connell and Shannon J. Polk of Haber Polk Kabat LLP.

Facebook is represented by Craig S. Primis and K. Winn Allen of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Kip Bollin of Thompson Hine LLP.

The case is Debbie Godwin v. Facebook Inc. et al., case number CV-18-891841, in the Court of Common Pleas, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.