Finding that Google has no duty to provide accurate content on its website, a Utah judge has thrown out the novel case of a woman who claimed that faulty walking directions on Google Maps caused her to be hit by a car.
The highway where Lauren Rosenberg was hit by a car
Lauren Rosenberg argued that Google was liable for her injuries because it has a “one-on-one” relationship with users of Google Maps. Providing her with directions over the Internet, she said, “was no different than if Plaintiff had called Google and orally asked a Google employee for walking directions.”
But publishers have generally been shielded from lawsuits over defective content, with courts finding either that the publisher owes no duty to the reader or that the content is protected under the First Amendment.
Salt Lake County District Court Judge Deno G. Himonas refused to deviate from that template, finding in a recent decision that Google “is clearly a publisher” because even though an individual Google Maps user can customize search results, “the exact same information provided to Rosenberg is readily available to any individual who uses the same search terms as Rosenberg.”
Imposing a legal duty on Google to provide Google Maps users with accurate directions and warn them of traffic hazards would “clearly be difficult, if not impossible[,] for Google to bear,” he concluded in granting its motion to dismiss the case.
“[U]nder such a broad duty,” Himonas wrote,
Google might have to investigate and warn about any foreseeable risks along any route, which might include negligent drivers, drunk drivers, dangerous wildlife, sidewalks or roads in disrepair, lack of lighting, and other risks that may only exist during certain times of the day.
Rosenberg was struck by a car in January 2010 as she was walking across a highway in Park City, Utah, following a route she had chosen after consulting Google Maps on her Blackberry. She sued the driver, Patrick Harwood, and Google for at least $100,000 in damages.
“As a direct and proximate cause of Defendant Google's careless, reckless and negligent providing of unsafe directions, Plaintiff Lauren Rosenberg was led onto a dangerous highway, and was thereby stricken [sic] by a motor vehicle,” the complaint said.
Google has claimed that Rosenberg “stepped in front of [Harwood's] car in the dark at 6 in the morning, apparently after drinking all night.”
The case appears to be the first to allege that an Internet service provider is liable for defective content. Since Google provided Rosenberg with “customized” walking directions in a “one-on-one communication,” it was no different than surveyors or real estate agents, who “have routinely been held liable for negligent misrepresentation,” she argued in a brief.
But Himonas said the argument that Google does not “publish” the directions on Google Maps “ignores the realities of modern society and technology ... [A]ll of the information on the Google Maps service [is] available to the public worldwide, and the fact that a user of the Google Maps service obtains customized results does not remove the protections afforded to any other publisher of information to the public.”
The judge did not address whether Rosenberg was drunk at the time of her accident but concluded that imposing a duty on Google “would serve to diminish the responsibility that pedestrians have for their own safety.”
In a seminal case, the Hawaii Supreme Court found a publisher of travel guides was not liable for publishing inaccurate information that allegedly resulted in a man being injured while body-surfing. Birmingham v. Fodor’s Travel Publications, 833 P.2d 70 (1992).
A bill that would have made travel guide publishers liable for failing to warn readers about dangerous conditions died in the Hawaii legislature earlier this year.
By Matthew Heller