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Warnings of Suicide Plans Were On Facebook. Liability, Anyone?

Posted by Andrew J. Barovick | Feb 22, 2009 | 0 Comments

Social networking websites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others, provide almost limitless opportunities for people around the globe to communicate, sharing information about their professional and personal lives on a virtually real-time basis.  Most of that information has been positive and informative, with the exception of those who air the dirty laundry of their dating lives on such sites.  Although boring, the latter type of information has not resulted in harm to anyone.

But harm has come through the use of social networking sites.  Recently, the headlines focused on the criminal case against a suburban mother who posed as a teenaged boy to emotionally torture a female friend and rival of her daughter.  The young lady on the receiving end of the cruel and manipulative messaging killed herself soon after.

Which brings us to the present.  A young man in Brooklyn, NY, killed himself last week, and left his suicide note on Facebook.  Now we learn, courtesy of the Gothamist , that the young man had broadcast messages on the site, shortly before he took his life, that were depressive and contained references to suicide.  This, of course, begs the question, could something have been done prevent it, and if so, what and by whom?

At present, it would be a stretch, legally, to think that tort law would allow for a claim of negligence against Facebook, because Facebook realistically had no duty to monitor its users for signs of deteriorating mental health.  Yet, on the other hand, it might be reasonably argued that Facebook had notice of the young man's intention to commit suicide.  If Facebook did not have a legal duty to somehow intervene and prevent the suicide, didn't it have at least a moral one?  And what about the “friends” on Facebook who were aware of the young man's psychological nosedive?  The news stories have not addressed whether or not they made any efforts to stop the suicide, but certainly they should have taken action as well. 

It seems to me that with such technologically advanced means of communication, from which the owners of such sites are profiting handsomely, there needs to be some enhanced responsibility when that means of communication reveals the stark pathology and suicidal thoughts of one of its users.

About the Author

Andrew J. Barovick

Mr. Barovick is a graduate of Columbia College and Cardozo School of Law. He began his legal career at the Queens District Attorney’s Office, where he tried over 20 felonies to verdict, and argued an equal number of appeals before the Appellate Division, Second Department, the New York Court of Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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