Product Liability Attorneys’ 2024 Groundbreaking Cases Watchlist

A series of significant cases will capture the attention of product liability counsel in 2024. The lawsuits hinge on groundbreaking theories concerning social media companies’ pursuit of children, emerging health risks of “forever chemicals,” and the opiate crisis.

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ByCarolyn Casey, J.D.

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Published on February 7, 2024

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In the last year, cases against mega social media companies about the risks of social media addiction and illegal harvesting of teen data have mushroomed -- in federal and state courts. The onslaught followed Frances Haugen’s, the “Facebook Whistleblower,” revelations that Facebook knew its products could negatively impact young people’s mental health.

Huge Social Media Teen Addiction Federal Case

Lawyers will want to keep an eye on In Re: Social Media Adolescent Addition/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation. This massive multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the Northern District of California federal court seeks to hold Meta, Instagram, Snap, ByteDance (TikTok), and Alphabet (Google, YouTube) accountable for failing to warn parents and teenagers about adolescent social media addiction risks that can lead to eating disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

In a novel move, plaintiffs base this case largely on defective product design claims. Plaintiffs seek compensation for emotional and physical harm caused by the defendants’ defective platforms and products. The defects alleged include product designs intended to maximize screen time – which can encourage addictive behavior in adolescents.

Rulings are expected on whether the platform algorithms that drive content feeds are ”products,” subject to product liability claims. For years, Meta and others have successfully argued that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (Section 230) and the First Amendment bar such claims.

Plaintiffs’ Co-Lead Counsel are Christopher A. Seeger of Seeger Weis LLP; Lexi J. Hazam of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, and Previn Warren of Motely Rice, LLP.

Meta Teen Data Harvesting and Harmful Content Federal Case

Thirty-three States’ Attorneys General (AGs) filed a lawsuit against Meta in the Northern District of California, with the same judge presiding. This case alleges that Meta harvested the data of children under 13 without obtaining the required parental consent. Meta knew that it was collecting data from under-age accounts and failed to shut them down, according to the filing.

Secondly, the AGs say that Meta knew that its algorithm could steer children toward mentally harmful content. The complaint cites internal Meta communications where employees talked about their concerns about "content on IG triggering negative emotions among tweens and impacting their mental well-being (and) our ranking algorithms taking [them] into negative spirals & feedback loops that are hard to exit from."

The plaintiffs seek court orders prohibiting Meta from the alleged illegal practices. With Meta hosting potentially millions of teen and kid users, civil penalties could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Enormous Ruling in California Superior Court Case Against Social Media Companies

On October 23, 2023, a Superior of Los Angeles County judge issued a jaw-dropping ruling that struck down the Section 230 federal immunity and First Amendment protections in a teen social media addiction case against Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube. Social Media Cases JCCP, Cal. Super. Ct., No. JCCP 5255 is a consolidation of 350+ individual personal injury cases and over 250 cases brought by school districts.

Here, plaintiffs also partially based their claims on a product liability theory, saying that defectively designed social media platforms had caused teens harm. In the significant October ruling, Judge Kuhl threw out several claims in the case including the products liability claim – saying platforms are not “products.”

However, Kuhl did allow the plaintiffs to proceed with their negligence claim. This involves the allegation that Meta specifically knew its platform had defects but failed to share that information with potential customers.

Lawyers will want to watch this action closely as it moves along in 2024. “This decision is an important step forward for the thousands of families we represent whose children have been permanently afflicted with debilitating mental health issues thanks to these social media giants,” the plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel said in a statement.

Many are wondering if this LA Superior Court ruling is the harbinger of things to come in the federal cases.

PFAS Litigation

Exposure to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) can result in reproductive, liver and kidney problems, and possibly cancer. PFAS’ water-resistant properties make them an attractive component for consumer and industrial products. PFAS last a long time in the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has investigated PFAS in the last few years. The agency has tightened regulations, including eliminating a loophole that allowed facilities to avoid reporting small PFAS amounts. Lawsuits and investigations have ensued.

State regulators in Michigan sued an airport to force a PFAS cleanup. Michigan Department of Environment et al. v. Gerald R Ford International Airport Authority et al., case number 23-08850-CE,in the State of Michigan Circuit Court for the 17th Judicial Circuit.

Connecticut public water utilities now face an action residents brought that claims that the utility sold water it knew was tainted. The cases are: Frances Hoffnagle et al. v. the Connecticut Water Co., case number CV23-6175540, in the Hartford Judicial District of the Connecticut Superior Court; Deborah Vincent et al. v. Aquarion Water Co., case number CV23-6128205, in the Fairfield Judicial District of the Connecticut Superior Court

PFAS lawsuits concerning the chemical’s presence in packaging are also starting to gain momentum. Fred Kueck et al. v. Nestle Purina Petcare Company, case number 4:23-cv-05962, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Several high-profile PFAS lawsuits have been filed. In 2023, Dupont, 3M, and other chemical manufacturers defendants in the MDL In Re: Aqueous Film-Forming Foams Products Liability Litigation, case number 2:18-mn-02873, in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, ended municipal water services claims about PFAS in firefighting foam with a multi-billion-dollar settlement. Other defendants in the MDL did not settle.

Dupont also struck a $110 million deal to resolve decades of contamination problems with the state of Ohio.

Litigators see more lawsuits coming. "I fully expect that, regardless of what happened with the global settlements that are pending in the MDL, that PFAS litigation will remain one of the most active areas of product and toxic tort litigation in the country for the next several years," says Alexandra Cunningham of Hunton Andrews Kurth, LLP.

Keep These Opioids Cases on Your Radar

2024 promises a lot of action in the ongoing lawsuits related to the opioids crisis.

Sackler Liability Shield Challenged

In the grandaddy of all opioids case, the U.S. Supreme court will hear a case challenging the Sackler family’s liability shield under Purdue Pharma’s Chapter 11 plan. Plaintiffs in William K. Harrington v. Purdue Pharma LP et al., case number 23-124, in the Supreme Court of the United States, maintain that a $4.325 trust fund the family set up to pay opioid claims should not release them from all opioid liability. Many see the Sackler family and their company Purdue Pharma as the main culprit in the opioid crisis during 2015-2017 when communities were ravaged by overdose deaths.

Public Nuisance Bellwether MDL Ruling Appealed

The Fourth Circuit will hear oral arguments on why it should throw out a lower court’s ruling that two West Virginia counties didn’t prove that large pharmaceutical distributors created a public nuisance. The plaintiffs will present their case to the court on January 25, 2024, arguing that the giant distributors’ ongoing massive shipments of opioids to these counties constituted a public nuisance. The case is West Virginia v. AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. et al., case number 22-1819, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Did a Court Misinterpret State Nuisance and Federal Controlled Substances Law?

In Cabell County Commission v. AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. et al., case number 22-1822, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the county will attempt to prove that a lower court decision should be overturned because the judge misinterpreted state nuisance law as well as the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Plaintiffs maintain that the drug distributor should be accountable for not having adequate controls and systems in place that would have detected abuse signals when eighty million opioid doses were shipped to a county with only 100,000 residents.

Can the Opioid Crisis Be Considered a Public Nuisance?

The Ohio high court will soon consider whether the opioid epidemic can even be considered a public nuisance at all. In re Natl. Prescription Opiate Litigation v. Purdue Pharma LP, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS Health the Sixth Circuit has asked the state's Supreme Court to determine if the Ohio Product Liability Act permits the plaintiff-counties to claim that the opioid epidemic is a public nuisance for which there is a remedy.

The Ohio Supreme Court's going to decide whether or not the main cause of action that all the plaintiffs use on this exists," James Beck of Reed Smith LLP said. "

About the author

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey is a seasoned professional with extensive experience in legal tech, e-discovery, and legal content creation. As Principal of WritMarketing, she combines her decade of Big Law experience with two decades in software leadership to provide strategic consulting in product strategy, content, and messaging for legal tech clients. Previously, Carolyn served as Legal Content Writer for Expert Institute, Sr. Director of Industry Relations at AccessData, and Director of Product Marketing at Zapproved, focusing on industry trends in forensic investigations, compliance, privacy, and e-discovery. Her career also includes roles at Iron Mountain as Head of Legal Product Management and Sr. Product Marketing Manager, where she led product and marketing strategies for legal services, and at Fios Inc as Sr. Marketing Manager, specializing in eDiscovery solutions.

Her early legal expertise was honed at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, where she developed legal strategies for mergers, acquisitions, and international finance matters. Carolyn's education includes a J.D. from American University Washington College of Law, where she was a Senior Editor for the International Law Journal and participated in a pioneering China Summer Law Program. She also holds an AB in Political Science with a minor in art history from Stanford University. Her diverse skill set encompasses research, creative writing, copy editing, and a deep understanding of legal product marketing and international legal trends.