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School board joins legal fight against social media giants

Mark Parker

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The Pinellas County School Board unanimously voted to sue social media companies for causing student mental health and behavioral problems. File photo.

Fresh off securing millions from e-cigarette manufacturers, the Pinellas County School Board is now turning its attention to another nationwide legal battle – against social media conglomerates.

The board, at a June 27 workshop, unanimously approved hiring the same law firm that recently helped the district win over $4 million from e-cigarette companies Juul and Altria. Pinellas County Schools (PCS) will now pursue financial and punitive damages against Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Snapchat, TikTok and Google (YouTube) for causing adverse effects on children.

Jonathan P. Kieffer, a partner with Kansas City, Missouri-based Wagstaff & Cartmell, and Steven R. Maher of the Maher Law Firm, based in Orlando, pitched their case to the school board at the workshop. Kieffer said he saw “striking parallels” between the successful e-cigarette litigation and the latest corporate suit.

“All I do is civil litigation, but I certainly prefer cases that are grassroots versus ones that are sort of lawyer-driven,” Kieffer said. “There have been … increasing numbers of very tragic cases; successful suicide cases, attempted suicide cases, other types of self-harm, eating disorders and various forms of violence and whatnot.”

The law firms secured nearly $3.2 million for PCS in December 2022 as part of Juul’s $1.7 billion legal settlement. The district was awarded $950,000 from Altria’s $235 million settlement in May.

Maher credited board members for being on the “cutting edge” of pursuing damages related to teen vaping. Attorneys have started filing suit against the social media companies on behalf of schools, and Kieffer said those efforts are “gaining pretty substantial steam among our largest clients.”

He noted that many districts seek funding for support services to mitigate mental health and bullying impacts. Kiefer said his firm is now gauging interest from “our largest and most sophisticated clients first.”

“You guys are obviously one of those,” he added.

The presentation followed U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s social media advisory in May. He stated that mounting evidence shows serious – and sometimes fatal – impacts on children and adolescents.

“We’ve set safety standards for other products and required manufacturers to implement and abide by those standards,” Murthy said. “We’ve got to do the same here.”

Kiefer noted the Surgeon General issued a formal advisory against e-cigarettes in late 2018 that helped propel the Juul litigation. He called the nation’s top doctor declaring that social media presents a significant health issue a “dramatic step forward.”

According to presentation documents, 45% of high school students report using social media daily, and 24% of teens say they are online “almost constantly.” Overall, 95% of children use YouTube, 67% frequent TikTok and 59% have a Snapchat account.

Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress that the company behind Facebook and Instagram identified and exploited psychological vulnerabilities.

According to internal company documents Haugen shared with legislators, Meta has known since at least 2019 that 13.5% of teen girls surveyed said Instagram makes “suicide and self-injury” thoughts worse. In addition, 17% said the platform exacerbates eating disorders.

Lisa Cane, Pinellas County School Board chairperson.

Board Chair Lisa Cane, a mother of four children, said she and her two teenagers frequently discuss social media’s negative impacts. She brought her family to the workshop to hear the presentation.

“The goal is to move this conversation and move culturally, so people understand the relevance of this issue and how important it is,” Cane said. “Social media is a growing concern for all parents, and how that affects them, their peers and their culture.

“Again, this is a very important conversation for families to continue to have – and for our community to look to solving.”

Fellow board members ardently agreed. Their attorneys plan to utilize the public nuisance legal theory to recover past and future expenses related to student mental health problems.

They will also seek injunctive relief to require companies to mitigate teen usage and “steep financial penalties to punish” the conglomerates and “deter future conduct.” All successful aspects of the Juul litigation.

PCS’ attorney noted that some people might question a lawsuit against companies frequently used by district officials and employees, both personally and officially. His rebuttal is that it targets algorithms harmful to kids rather than the platforms.

Kiefer compared it to Ford Explorers overturning at a much higher rate than comparable SUVs in the early-to-mid 1990s. He said that if the design flaw caused a family accident, “I wouldn’t hesitate to sue Ford – even if I drove a Ford Taurus to work every day.”

“We’re focused on a particularly vulnerable population and certain specific products and business practices,” Kiefer added.

The board will vote on a contract with the law firms in the coming months. Kiefer expects the suit to take three to five years.

 

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