Mark Zuckerberg Seeks to Avoid Personal Liability in Lawsuits Blaming Him for Kids’ Instagram Addiction

Feb24,2024



Mark Zuckerberg is seeking to avoid being held personally liable in two dozen lawsuits accusing Meta Platform Inc. and other social media companies of getting children addicted to their products. Meta's chief executive laid out his case during a hearing in California federal court on Friday, but the judge did not immediately make a decision. A ruling in Zuckerberg's favor would dismiss him as an individual defendant in the lawsuit, which would have no impact on the allegations against Meta.

Holding executives personally liable can be a challenge due to the corporate law tradition of shielding executives from liability, especially in large companies where the decision-making process is often layered upon. The loss for the billionaire who launched Facebook with friends as a Harvard graduate two decades ago could encourage claims against other CEOs in massive personal injury litigation.

Zuckerberg faced allegations from young people and parents that he had been repeatedly warned that Instagram and Facebook were not safe for children, but that he ignored the findings and chose not to share them publicly. .

The cases naming Zuckerberg are a small subset of a collection of more than 1,000 lawsuits in state and federal courts by families and public school districts against Meta as well as Alphabet Inc.'s Google, ByteDance Ltd.'s TikTok and Snap Inc. Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, who is overseeing the federal cases, recently allowed some claims to proceed against the companies while dismissing others.

The plaintiffs argue that as the face of Meta, Zuckerberg has a responsibility to “speak fully and truthfully on the risks to children's health posed by Meta's platforms.”

“With great power comes great responsibility,” lawyers for the plaintiffs said in a court filing, citing the Spider-Man comics in a footnote. “Unfortunately, Mr. Zuckerberg has not lived up to that adage.”

Zuckerberg, the world's fourth-richest person, has argued that just because he is the CEO, he cannot be held personally responsible for the actions at Meta. His lawyers also claim that Zuckerberg did not have a duty to disclose the security findings that were allegedly communicated to him.

“There is sufficient legal precedent to establish that being an executive does not confer liability for the corporation's alleged conduct,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. He said the claims against Zuckerberg should be completely rejected.

At the hearing, Rogers pressed the plaintiffs on whether Zuckerberg is required to disclose security information in the absence of a “special relationship” with users of his products. The plaintiffs had argued that the Meta CEO had a responsibility to Facebook and Instagram users given his “large role at the company”, but Rogers challenged him to point to a specific law that would support his argument.

Rogers appeared more sympathetic to the plaintiffs' arguments that Zuckerberg could be held personally liable for hiding information as a corporate officer at Meta, asking Zuckerberg's lawyers if there was an understanding that the disclosure of security information. It is Meta's duty to do so so how does he avoid potential personal liability.

The judge also discussed with lawyers how laws covering corporate officer liability, which vary between states, apply to Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg, who is Meta's most significant shareholder and holds sole voting control in the company, is also at risk of being held personally liable in a separate 2022 lawsuit over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal brought by the Attorney General of the District of Columbia in Washington . ,

Attributing blame to an executive for illegal conduct usually depends on showing their involvement in relevant day-to-day decisions or their knowledge of the practices at issue. It is generally easier to delegate executive responsibilities in smaller companies, where an individual's direct involvement in decision making may be evident. In larger companies, the onus to prove control over decision making is reduced.

Social media companies have come under greater scrutiny for their impact on young people's mental health and role in spreading sexually explicit content. At a Senate hearing last month, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, pressed Zuckerberg on whether he should personally compensate victims of online sexual abuse. Zuckerberg then issued a rare apology to the victims' families.

The case is In re Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation, 22-MD-03047, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

© 2024 Bloomberg LP


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