At Easter in 2017, Steve Stephens randomly shot and killed 74-year old Robert Godwin, Sr. A few days later, while being hunted by police, Stephens killed himself. It appeared to be another senseless tragic shooting, the kind we’ve all become so used to hearing about.
But last Friday (January 26) the estate of Robert Godwin filed a lawsuit in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, claiming that Facebook is liable for damages for wrongful death. Before he shot Godwin, Stephens posted on Facebook that he had lost everything. “I not going to go into details,” he wrote, “but I’m a my breaking point I’m really on some murder shit. FB you have 4 minutes to tell me why I shouldn’t be on death row!!!! I’m dead serious #teamdeathrow,” according to the American Bar Association Journal. Stephens shot Godwin on the street just minutes from the location where he posted the threat, and filmed the shooting, later posting that to Facebook as well
The lawsuit claims that because Facebook mines data from its users, it had a duty to alert those users to threats such as this. “Data mining” is the practice of analyzing large sets of data for information. Thus, according to the suit, Facebook is not a passive actor that just provides a place for people to post whatever they want. By becoming involved in what gets posted, Facebook becomes aware of trends, practices and even intentions of its users. Having thus gained a theoretical knowledge of Stephens’ murderous tendencies, Facebook had a duty to alert its users of the fact. Portions of the complaint can be read here, courtesy of News 5 in Cleveland.
The lawsuit raises a number of legal questions, but they all boil down to one: To what extent are we all our brothers’ keepers?