Legally Speaking: When all else fails, blame social media

John G. Browning Jul. 6, 2012, 8:37am

I frequently write about what I consider frivolous lawsuits and the attendant lack of accepting personal responsibility in many of these cases.

I also often write about social media, and how the transformative effect social networking platforms have had on how we communicate has also impacted our legal system.

Opportunities to discuss personal responsibility in the age of social media haven't come up too often—until the recent case of William "Kim" Flint, that is.

Flint was an avid cyclist who died on June 19, 2010, when he was racing down a steep road in Berkeley, Calif., at 40 miles per hour and had to brake suddenly, causing him to flip over a car.

On the verge of the civil suit statute of limitations running, Flint's family filed suit against Strava, a social media site for cyclists, claiming it was responsible for the 41-year-old electrical engineer's death.

Strava created a smartphone app that users can employ to track their rides, using GPS to map "routes." The social aspect of this appears in the app's comparative features, which allows a user to "compete" digitally with other users by comparing times on given routes and obtaining recognition for high scores (much like video arcade games of the past). A first place score or best time will earn a user the coveted status of "King of the Mountain."

At the time of his death, Flint was purportedly trying to reclaim his "King of the Mountain" status on a particular route. Susan Kang, the attorney representing Flints' family, claims in a suit filed on June 18 in San Francisco Superior Court that responsibility for the accident rests not with the time-obsessed cyclist himself, but instead with Strava.

She accuses the company of negligence for driving people to be more competitive and to take senseless risks, in a sense creating "a wild, wild West culture where [lawbreaking] is encouraged and rewarded with no warning about the risks."

To be fair, Strava's name has come up in connection with a recent case in which vehicular manslaughter charges have been filed in San Francisco against cyclist Chris Bucchere.

On March 29, Bucchere was riding down Castro Street doing approximately 35 mph when he allegedly ran a red light and struck 71-year-old pedestrian Sutchi Hui. Hui died four days later. Bucchere wrote about the accident on his Strava account.

In a statement after the Flint lawsuit was filed, a Strava spokesman said "The death of Kim Flint was a tragic accident, and we expressed our sincere condolences when it occurred in 2010. Based on the facts involved in the accident and the law, there is no merit to this lawsuit. We again express our condolences to the Flint family, but we will defend the company vigorously through the legal process ahead."

Interestingly, however, since the filing of the suit, Strava has changed its terms of service, adding language to its "Disclaimer" section stating that the user agrees that there are "inherent and significant risks of property damage, bodily injury or death associated with athletic activities."

It also calls for the user to expressly agree that "Strava does not assume responsibility for the inspection, supervision, preparation, or conduct of any race, contest, group ride or event that utilizes Strava's site."

Strava also removed the "King of the Mountain" designations for the accident site back in 2010 after Flint's death, and it now features a notation that the descent is dangerous.

Yet is this accident the fault of a social media site, or the cyclist who chose to hurtle down South Park Drive in the city's Tilden Park at breakneck speed?

Flint had achieved his "King of the Mountain" designation a couple of weeks before his death, reaching a speed of 49.3 mph and describing it enthusiastically in a Twitter post that such racing is "how I find religion on Sunday morning."

But on June 15, 2010, another cyclist surpassed Flint's time by 4 seconds. In online forums, cycling enthusiasts have speculated that reclaiming his "King of the Mountain" status was what prompted Flint to undertake the dangerous descent that led to his death. Even the lawsuit itself describes Flint as "obsessed" with his scores.

Call me crazy, but I find it hard to let a well-educated 41-year-old man off the hook for his own risky behavior and instead to lay the blame at the feet of a technology company.

A lot of companies have jumped on the bandwagon of using the latest technology to gather and interpret data about peoples' athletic activities.

Want to keep a record of your heart rate during and after a workout? We've got equipment to help. Want to track your times as you train for a triathlon, and synch those with your social media profile so your training buddies, coaches, etc. can chime in? There's an app for that.

However, if you're a grown man and you let your obsession with being better than anybody else at a certain activity drive you to unsafe behavior while engaging in that activity, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Life is not an arcade game like "Donkey Kong," and being obsessed with seeing your initials at the top of the leader board is not healthy—especially when you ignore common sense.

I don't need all the GPS data that Kim Flint undoubtedly had available to him to look at a ridiculously steep decent and think "Yeah, I could die trying this."

People need to take responsibility for their own actions and not be so quick to fault technology. In video or computer games, a player may get more than one life; in real life, that never happens.

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