Mark Zuckerberg seeks to avoid personal liability in two dozen lawsuits accusing Meta Platforms Inc. and other social media companies for getting kids addicted to their products. Meta’s CEO presented his case at a hearing Friday in California federal court, but the judge did not immediately rule. A ruling in favor of Zuckerberg would dismiss him as a personal defendant in the lawsuit without affecting the charges against Meta.

Holding him personally liable can be challenging because of corporate law’s tradition of shielding executives from liability, especially in larger companies where decision-making is often layered. A loss for the billionaire, who started Facebook with friends as a Harvard student two decades ago, could encourage claims against other CEOs in mass personal injury lawsuits.

Zuckerberg has faced accusations from young people and parents that he was repeatedly warned that Instagram and Facebook were not safe for children, but ignored the findings and chose not to share them publicly.

The lawsuits naming Zuckerberg are a small part of a collection of more than 1,000 lawsuits 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. US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, who oversees the federal cases, recently allowed some claims to be filed against the companies while dismissing others.

The plaintiffs argue that, as the face of Meta, Zuckerberg has a responsibility to “communicate fully and truthfully about the risks that Meta’s platforms pose to children’s health.”

“With great power comes great responsibility,” attorneys for the plaintiffs said in a lawsuit, citing the Spider-Man comics in a footnote. “Unfortunately, Mr. Zuckerberg did not live by that maxim.”

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

“There is ample legal precedent establishing that being a CEO does not bear responsibility for the alleged conduct of a corporation,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the claims against Zuckerberg should be dismissed in their entirety.

During the hearing, Rogers pressed the plaintiffs on whether Zuckerberg is required to disclose safety information if he does not have a “special relationship” with users of his products. The plaintiffs argued that Meta’s CEO has a responsibility to Facebook and Instagram users given his “huge role in the company,” but Rogers challenged them to point to specific law to support their argument.

Rogers seemed more sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ arguments that Zuckerberg could be held liable for personally withholding information as a corporate officer at Meta, asking Zuckerberg’s lawyers how he avoided potential personal liability if there was an understanding that Meta itself was required to disclose the safety information.

The judge also discussed with lawyers how laws covering the liability of corporate officers, which vary from state to state, apply to Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg, who is Meta’s largest shareholder and maintains sole voting control of the company, is also at risk of being held personally liable in a separate lawsuit in 2022 over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal brought by the chief attorney for the District of Columbia in Washington.

Accusing an executive of illegal conduct usually depends on showing their involvement in the relevant day-to-day decisions or their knowledge of the practices in question. It is generally easier to assign executive responsibility in smaller companies, where an individual’s direct involvement in decision-making may be clearer. In large companies, responsibility comes down to demonstrating control over decision-making.

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, R-Missouri, pressed Zuckerberg on whether he should personally compensate victims of online sexual exploitation. Zuckerberg then issued a rare apology to the families of the victims.

The case is Adolescent Social Media Addiction/Personal Injury Product Liability Lawsuit, 22-md-03047, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

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