We have previously written about the United States District Court for the Northern District of California’s (the “District Court”) dismissal of the plaintiffs’ complaint in Fields v. Twitter, Inc. We are back to provide an update after the case made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (the “Appellate Court”). The Appellate Court filed an Opinion on January 31, 2018, in which it affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims.To re-cap the facts of the case, the plaintiffs’ complaint arose out of the deaths of Lloyd Fields, Jr. and James Damon Creach, two United States government contractors who were working at a law enforcement training center in Amman, Jordan. Mr. Fields and Mr. Creach were murdered at the hands of Anwar Abu Zaid, a Jordanian police captain who was inspired to commit the act after watching the ISIS execution of the Jordanian pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh via a video that ISIS distributed through a Twitter account. The plaintiffs’ claims and Twitter’s defense are laid out in further detail in our previous post, but the plaintiffs essentially claimed that Twitter violated the Anti-Terrorism Act (“ATA”) when it knowingly provided material support to ISIS by permitting ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda.
Among other reasons, the District Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint because, they failed to plead that they were injured “by reason of” Twitter’s conduct. Like the District Court, the Appellate Court, after a de novo review, found no proximate causation between Twitter’s actions and the deaths of Mr. Fields and Mr. Creach. The plaintiffs argued that proximate causation is established under the ATA when an act is “a substantial factor in the sequence of responsible causation” and the injury at issue was “reasonably foreseeable or anticipated as a natural consequence.” Twitter, in turn, argued for a higher standard that would require plaintiffs to show conduct that “led directly” to the harm to Mr. Fields and Mr. Creach.
The District Court declined deciding the issue because it found that the facts, as pled, satisfied neither proximate cause definition. The Appellate Court agreed with Twitter’s argument, and concluded that the ATA’s “by reason of” requirement requires a showing of “some direct relationship between the injuries that he or she suffered and the defendant’s acts.” The Appellate Court reasoned that, due to fact that communication services and equipment are highly interconnected in modern economic and social life, holding otherwise could cause boundless litigation risks. In using “direct relationship” as the test, the Appellate Court found that the facts, as pled, alleged no connection between Mr. Abu Zaid and Twitter and did not support a plausible inference of proximate causation between Twitter’s alleged provision of accounts to ISIS and the deaths of Mr. Fields and Mr. Creach.
This decision provides an interesting look into the nature of causation in a world where communication technology is ubiquitous. While the Appellate Court’s analysis of proximate causation in this decision was limited to the ATA, the Court’s reasoning suggested that requiring direct relationships between the actions of social media companies and harm to a potential plaintiff is likely to be required in other contexts as well.