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Mark Zuckerberg is seeking to avoid personal liability in two dozen lawsuits accusing Meta Platforms Inc. and other social media companies of poisoning children with its products. The Meta CEO made his case Friday at a hearing in federal court in California, but the judge did not immediately issue a decision. A ruling in Zuckerberg’s favor would have him dismissed as an individual defendant in the lawsuit without affecting the charges against Meta.

Holding him personally liable can be difficult because of corporate law traditions that shield executives from liability, especially in large corporations where decision-making is often layered. The loss of the billionaire who started Facebook with friends as Harvard undergraduates 20 years ago could result in him suing other CEOs in a massive personal injury lawsuit.

Zuckerberg has faced claims from teenagers and parents that he received repeated warnings that Instagram and Facebook were unsafe for children, but chose to ignore them and not share them publicly.

The case called Zuckerberg is part of a collection of more than 1,000 lawsuits filed in state and federal courts by families and public school districts against Meta, along with Alphabet Inc.’s Google, ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok and Snap Inc. Oakland Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who is overseeing the federal case, recently allowed some lawsuits against the company and dismissed others.

The plaintiffs claim that as the face of Meta, Zuckerberg has a responsibility to “speak fully and truthfully about the risks Meta’s platform poses to children’s health.”

“With great power comes great responsibility,” plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a court filing, quoting a Spider-Man comic in a footnote. “Unfortunately, Mr. Zuckerberg has not lived up to that principle.”

Zuckerberg, the world’s fourth-richest person, has argued that he cannot be held personally responsible for his actions on Meta just because he is CEO. His lawyers also argue that Zuckerberg had no obligation to disclose the safety findings that were allegedly reported to him.

“There is ample legal precedent to show that being an executive does not confer responsibility for the actions of a corporation,” Mehta said in a statement, adding that all lawsuits against Zuckerberg should be dismissed.

At the hearing, Rogers pressed the plaintiffs on whether Zuckerberg should disclose safety information without a “special relationship” with users of his products. The plaintiffs argued that the Meta CEO is responsible for Facebook and Instagram users because he plays a “large role in the company,” but Rogers asked them to point to specific laws to support their claims.

Rogers appears more sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ argument that Zuckerberg, as a corporate officer of Meta, could be personally liable for concealing information, and he told Zuckerberg’s lawyers that there was an understanding that Meta itself had a duty to disclose safety information. You asked how you can avoid potential personal liability.

The judge also discussed with lawyers how laws governing corporate officer liability, which vary from state to state, apply to Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg, who is Meta’s most significant shareholder and maintains sole voting control of the company, risks personal liability in a separate 2022 lawsuit over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal brought by the U.S. Attorney General for the District of Columbia. .

Accusing management of wrongdoing usually hinges on participation in relevant day-to-day decisions or demonstrating knowledge of the problematic practices. Assigning executive responsibility is generally easier in smaller companies where it may be more obvious for individuals to be directly involved in decision-making. In large companies, the onus is on demonstrating control over decisions.

Social media companies have come under increased scrutiny for their impact on young people’s mental health and their role in spreading sexually explicit content. At a Senate hearing last month, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, pressed Zuckerberg on whether he should personally compensate victims of online sexual exploitation. Zuckerberg issued a rare apology to the victims’ families.

The case is In Re Social Media Juvenile Poisoning/Personal Injury Product Liability Litigation, 22-md-03047, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

© 2024 Bloomberg LP

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