AZ: Parents sue Snapchat over son’s fatal OD

Zach Plunk, 17, died of a fentanyl overdose outside his family’s house in Mesa in August 2020.

His final moments were caught on his parents’ doorbell camera, which recorded the football player leaving the house at 3 a.m. to buy a pill from a dealer, then sitting down on the curb outside the house.

“He didn’t even make it back in the house,” his mother Wendy Plunk told the Tribune..

Zach was found unconscious by a 15-year-old boy jogging at 5 a.m. He called 911 and began CPR, but Zach was gone before the ambulance arrived.

Roy and Wendy Plunk, who adopted Zach when he was 6 months old, said police told them their son had enough fentanyl in his system to kill five people.

The Plunks say a dealer sold Zach a pill made of the powerful opioid fentanyl mixed with binders and molded into a copy of a prescription opioid pill.

They say Zach, who dreamed of playing football and studying forensic science at Baylor University, suffered chronic pain after a shoulder injury his freshman year that required surgery and many treatments.

Zach occasionally turned to social media to buy Percocet to self-medicate, his parents said.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Los Angeles Superior Court, attorneys for the Plunks said Zach should not have turned to Snapchat for pain relief.

But they charge that Snap, the parent company of the app, should not have designed the platform in a way that allows dealers on the black market to connect with underage kids like Zach.

They also allege that Snap was negligent in design features that prevented them from monitoring Zach’s activity and enabled their son to connect with a dealer in the middle of the night.

The Plunks are one of 16 parents of minors across the country who died of overdoses from fentanyl obtained via Snapchat.

So far in 2022, Mesa Fire and Medical medic have responded to 42 opioid overdoses in patients 19 or younger, according to the city’s data portal. Five incidents were fatal.

In a sign of the scale of the fentanyl trade, the Mesa Police Department seized over 700,000 fentanyl pills in a single bust in November.

The Plunks said they’re suing Snapchat to force changes to the social media platform and get the word out to more parents about the dangers of fentanyl and the role of social media in trafficking.

“You think, ‘my kids would never do drugs.’ But you don’t know what’s in the back of your kid’s mind when they’re on social media. You don’t know what it’s feeding them,” Roy said.

Product design

Snapchat was founded in 2011 and is based in Santa Monica, California. The company is valued at $15 billion.

Snapchat was known early on for allowing users to send messages that disappear after they are viewed by a recipient.

Roughly 60% of its users are under 25, according to social media management company Hootsuite, and 20% are under 18.

After Zach’s death, Wendy became involved in support groups for grieving parents and noticed that many of the overdose stories she heard also involved Snapchat.

In the suit, Wendy estimates 30% of the parents she has met through support groups lost children after they purchased drugs on Snapchat. Another 30% came from people their kids met in person, and the rest were from unknown sources.

“The number of drug dealers on Snapchat right now would blow your mind,” said Laura Marquez-Garrett, an attorney for the Plunks. “They’re not using Instagram, they’re not using Facebook because they believe, based on Snap’s marketing, they believe they can’t get caught on Snap.”

The complaint alleges that dealers are attracted to Snapchat’s disappearing message feature and the ability for dealers to appear as a suggested “friend” on users’ feeds.

The app “is engineered to evade parental supervision and law enforcement’s detection and acquisition of criminal evidence,” it states, and this was “the direct and proximate cause of the untimely and tragic death and injuries at issue.”

Roy Plunk also blames the flow of fentanyl across the border for the problem of young people dying, but he also blames social media for putting the fatal pill in his son’s hand.

“The main thing is just Snapchat. It has to be opened up. They can’t have these secret meetings where it just, ‘poof,’ goes into thin air,” Roy said.

In response to a request for comment on the Plunks’ complaint, a spokesperson for Snap provided the following statement:

“The trafficking of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl is an urgent national crisis. We are devastated that these counterfeit drugs have taken the lives of so many people, and our hearts go out to families who have suffered unimaginable losses.

“We are committed to bringing every resource to bear to help fight this national crisis, both on Snapchat and across the tech industry overall.”

It also said, “While we can’t comment specifically on active litigation, we can share all the progress we have made in this area. We use cutting-edge technology to proactively find and shut down drug dealers’ accounts, and we block search results for drug-related terms, instead redirecting Snapchatters to resources from experts about the dangers of fentanyl.”

“We have also expanded our support for law enforcement investigations, promoted in-app educational videos warning about the dangers of counterfeit pills that have been viewed over 260 million times on Snapchat, and are partnering with the Ad Council, nonprofit organizations, and other platforms on an unprecedented national public awareness campaign that launched in October.”

Matthew Bergman, the founder of the Social Media Law Center in Seattle, which is representing the Plunks, said he decided to apply his product liability experience to social media cases after a Facebook whistleblower testified to Congress in 2021.

The whistleblower revealed internal documents showing the extent that the social media platform was aware of the dangers posed by social media use.

Social media platforms have been shielded during the rise of the internet by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which limits websites’ liability for content posted by third parties on their sites, but Bergman said this principle doesn’t apply to the Snapchat suits.

“The focus of our cases has been that it’s the design of the product, not the content, that caused injury,” Bergman said.

“If there were a video arcade that catered to kids, and there was a room in the back of the arcade that was used to exchange drugs, and the owners of the arcades knew that this was an active drug exchange site, they would be responsible,” Bergman said.

No one immune

Wendy and Roy said Zach’s friends still stop by the house to talk with them.

Making friends was one of his gifts. He “just had that magnetic personality, you know, and he loved everybody,” Roy said.

There’s both sadness and pride in their voices when they remember Zach.

The Plunks are ready for a legal fight over their complaint because they’ve channeled their grief into a drive to help others and prevent similar incidents.

“It’s devastated us,” Roy said of the losing Zach. “Main thing to keep us going is to try to save other lives. Get the word out.”

Part of the Plunks’ message is that fentanyl is everywhere now, and no family or neighborhood is immune from the danger of this drug.

Wendy’s advice for parents is clear: “Don’t let (kids) on Snapchat, don’t let them on Instagram, don’t let them on social media, whatsoever.”

“We know that’s not going to happen,” Roy said, “but at least they have to watch their accounts.”

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