By Tom Hagy

Facebook can be great fun. How else would I have seen a video of an eight-year-old drummer-girl utterly thrashing Led Zeppelin’s Good Times Bad Times? Or a dog running away with a lit skyrocket as his human friends run, duck and ditch for their lives? Or what your cat looks like in a tuxedo?

Facebook can also be a source of horror. Some of the most distressful commentary and images you wish you could un-see. And that’s just from my family.

Imagine your entire job is to monitor Facebook discussions and remove its graphic content. Day in and day out. That’s literally all you did.

A group of Facebook employees says that was their job, and their exposure to an “unmitigated barrage of horrifying content” and “toxic images” has caused them to suffer “debilitating trauma-related injuries.”

In September 2018 they filed suit in California Superior Court in San Mateo seeking an order requiring Facebook to implement safety guidelines for content moderators which, they say, the company has admitted are “necessary and appropriate.” They also want the company to fund a medical monitoring program for the diagnosis and treatment of psychological injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The plaintiffs quote Chris Harrison, whom they characterize as a Facebook executive in charge of the company’s “global resiliency team” as saying “of course” the company should offer content moderators post-employment counseling.

The plaintiffs filed the suit as a proposed class action, and relied on state laws including the California Unfair Competition Law alleging Facebook’s conduct was negligent, and negligence forms the basis of a UCL claim.

Facebook moved for a judgment on the pleadings, saying the facts are insufficient to constitute a community of interest required for class actions and that there is no ascertainable class. The company said the plaintiffs haven’t supported a claim for negligent provision of unsafe equipment or violation of the UCL, either.

The issue was set for a hearing on Aug. 9 but the parties agreed to take the case to ADR and stay the litigation until Oct. 7. If they don’t come to an agreement by then they will submit a new case schedule to the court (Selena Scola, et al. v. Facebook, Inc., Civil Case No. 18CIV05135, Calif. Super. Ct., San Mateo Co.).

What Lawyers Should Know

Coincidentally — and this has nothing whatsoever to do with the Facebook case — in preparing for our Aug. 21 webinar — PTSD in Mass Tort & Multi-Plaintiff CasesMark I. Levy, M.D., DLFAPA (who is in no way involved in that case) told me that “a majority of people who experience a traumatic and stressful event do not develop PTSD.” He said that multiple studies revealed that even in the extreme case of rape, 40-50% of victims do not develop PTSD. Of course, the flip side of that is that more than half do.

People have different levels of resiliency and vulnerability, he said, so what may cause PTSD in one person may not cause it in another. This isn’t to diminish anyone’s traumatic experience. The question is how these experiences impact the individual, not whether their experience was horrible or not, or illegal or not, which are separate questions. “The probability of an event causing PTSD in any particular individual is only partially related to the severity of the stressor,” Dr. Levy said. I asked him if there were degrees of PTSD, or whether someone can have “a touch of PTSD.” Dr. Levy explained that PTSD is a specific diagnosis with specific conditions. In other words, despite how the term may be used in common parlance, you can’t have “a little PTSD,” at least not in the clinical sense of the word.

In his presentation materials, Dr. Levy gives two examples of bad experiences that resulted in litigation but were found not to cause PTSD. “After a board meeting a secretary ate a left-over pastry contaminated with rat feces. She alleged she had PTSD because she could never work in that office again. Hers was a truly disgusting experience, but it did not cause PTSD,” Dr. Levy said. In another case a woman who endured unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures from her boss were, while clearly offensive and even unlawful, did not result in the woman’s PTSD. Dr. Levy discusses examples where individuals developed PTSD, such as battle experiences, train crashes, and others.

Here is a summary of the PTSD diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5:

A. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
B. Presence of one (or more) intrusive symptoms associated with the traumatic event(s).
C. Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning after the traumatic event(s) occurred.
D. Negative alterations in cognitions and mood associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning or worsening after the traumatic event(s).
E. Marked alterations in arousal and reactivity associated with the traumatic event(s).
F. Duration of the disturbance (Criteria B, C, D, and E) is more than 1 month.
G. Functional Impairment: The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
H. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., medication, alcohol) or another medical condition.

In the majority of cases, PTSD is accompanied by other psychiatric diagnoses (co-morbidity): Major Depression and/or Anxiety Disorder and/or Substance Abuse.

Dr. Levy — who is Medical Director at Forensic Psychiatric Associates Medical Corporation — cautions attorneys and others about the forensic use of DSM-5: “It is important to note that the definition of mental disorder included in DSM-5 was developed to meet the needs of clinicians, public health professionals, and research investigators rather than all of the technical needs of the courts and legal professionals.”

For attorneys interested in hearing more from Dr. Levy, and his colleague, Sarah A. Hall, PhD., Clinical Psychologist Specializing in Forensic & Neuropsychological Assessments, click the banner below and learn more about the webinar.