Judge throws out Netflix lawsuit brought by father whose 15-year-old daughter killed herself days after watching suicide scene in 13 Reasons Why because it ‘infringes on protected speech’
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Netflix that was filed by the family of a teenage girl who claimed her 2017 suicide was prompted by watching the streaming giant’s controversial show 13 Reasons Why.
The class-action lawsuit was filed last August by John Herndon, who claimed his 15-year-old daughter Bella had ‘died as a result of the tortious acts and omissions of Netflix that caused, or at least substantially contributed to, her suicide’ in April 2017.
The suit also argued that Netflix’s algorithm for suggesting shows resulted in targeting at-risk teens.
However, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, of the Northern District of California, ruled in Netflix’s favor Tuesday on the basis of free speech protections. She decided that the streaming platform cannot be sued over suggesting the show to viewers.
‘This is a tragic case,’ Gonzalez Rogers said. ‘But ultimately, I don’t think that it survives.’
‘Federal courts frequently deal with such tragedies including in the context of deaths stemming from the violation of civil rights,’ Gonzalez Rogers added.
The family of Bella Herndon (pictured) found the 15-year-old girl hanged in her bedroom shortly after she finished watching season one of 13 Reasons Why in 2017
Bella’s parents, John and Donna Herndon, slammed the streaming giant for preying on vulnerable viewers
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Netflix that was filed in August by the family of a teenage girl who claimed her 2017 suicide was prompted by watching 13 Reasons Why
The Netflix drama, which is based on a book, faced a wave of criticism after it was released in March 2017. The show centers around a high school-aged girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassettes for each of the people she says are the reasons she took her life.
‘There are no words that describe my contempt for the people who did this. You can’t convince me that they were trying to attract attention to the issue of teen suicide by showing a little girl killing herself. There’s nothing positive about that,’ Herndon had previously said of the show.
Herndon’s lawyer, Ryan Hamilton, argued that the case isn’t about the show’s content but about Netflix’s algorithm, which he described as a dangerous product feature which suggests problematic and triggering content to young adults.
‘What this case is about is the private targeting of vulnerable children and consequences that were not only foreseeable and were foreseen but that Netflix was warned about,’ he said.
The plaintiffs now have until January 18 to file an amended complaint that would allow them to appeal the case.
Many people called for the show to be pulled from the streaming site but Netflix and those who worked on the show continue to defend it.
‘Creators obligated to shield certain viewers from expressive works depicting suicide would inevitably censor themselves to avoid the threat of liability,’ lawyers for Netflix argued. ‘This would dampen the vigor and limit the variety of public debate.’
Bella Herndon was just three days from her 16th birthday when her parents found herself hanging in her bedroom closet on April 18, 2017. Her parents knew she was battling depression but said she seemed happy before her death
Bella Herndon was just three days from her 16th birthday when her parents found her body hanging lifelessly in her bedroom closet on April 18. She had just finished watching the first season of 13 Reasons Why.
‘All I could see is that she was on her knees bent over, like she was digging in the closet. I thought she was joking around because there’s nothing really to find in her closet,’ her mother, Donna, had said through suppressed tears.
‘So I laughed and said, ‘Hey Bella, what are you doing?’ And then I got closer and she had hung herself. She was so blue.’
Bella was a sophomore at Livermore Valley Charter Prep School and had straight As.
Her parents said English was her favorite subject, and she planned to be a writer when she grew up. Bella’s dad described her as a ‘hero.’
After finding her body, her father cut her down. She was on placed life support for about a week and a half before doctor’s told her parents there was no hope.
Though they knew she was battling depression, and had been bullied since middle school, Bella’s parents said before her death she seemed happy and had new friends who were coming over regularly.
In a final video of Bella, the teen hijacked her mother’s phone to record herself saying: ‘I love you mommy.’
Priscilla Chiu, another Bay Area 15-year-old girl, also took her own life shortly after finishing the first season of 13 Reasons Why
‘I just remember her brother running out and screaming, “Priscilla hung herself! We took her down, called 911, tried to do what we could… CPR, but it was pretty obvious. She was cold,’ Chiu told KTVU
The teen’s death was not the only one attributed to the show, which finished its fourth season on Netflix last summer.
Priscilla Chiu, another Bay Area 15-year-old girl, killed herself just a few days after Bella took her own life.
Priscilla lived with her uncle Peter Chiu, who described his niece as precocious and determined.
‘I just remember her brother running out and screaming, “Priscilla hung herself!”
‘We took her down, called 911, tried to do what we could… CPR, but it was pretty obvious. She was cold,’ Chiu told KTVU.
Like Bella, Priscilla battled depression, and looking back, her uncle said he missed the signs.
He shared a final photo of his niece, posing in San Francisco’s Chinatown just days before she took her life.
‘I feel like the absolute worst adult because I kept forcing her to go to school,’ Peter told KTVU.
Netflix released a statement expressing their condolences to the families at the time of their coinciding tragedies but refused to pull the show.
‘Our hearts go out to these families during this difficult time. We have heard from many viewers that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the difficult topics depicted in the show.
‘We took extra precautions to alert viewers to the nature of the content and created a global website to help people find local mental health resources,’ the company said in a statement.
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that an extra 195 deaths by suicide of those between the ages of 10 to 17 were reported in the nine months after 13 Reasons Why premiered.
Two years after the release of the show, Netflix decided to cut the graphic three-minute suicide scene from the season one finale.
‘On the advice of medical experts, including Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we’ve decided with creator Brian Yorkey and the producers to edit the scene in which Hannah takes her own life from season one,’ the company tweeted ahead of the release of season 3 in 2019.
The first season was not prefaced by any warnings about its content and the supplemental materials available online were dubbed lacking by many psychologists.
Last year, a survey by the University of Michigan, which spoke to 87 teenagers who attempted suicide in the past year revealed that half of those who saw the show believed it ‘increased their suicide risk.’
The research, published in the journal Psychiatric Services, also revealed teens who watched the program did not speak to adults about the suicide theme.
Producers of the second series, released in May 2018, added a disclaimer which urges young viewers to watch with a trusted adult and highlights the importance of seeking help.
For confidential support call the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255
The controversial show centers around the suicide of a teenage girl. Season one originally ended with a graphic 3-minute scene showing her suicide