OPN Zuckerberg
FILE - Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. Image Credit: AP file

Mark Zuckerberg is seeking to avoid being held personally liable in two dozen lawsuits accusing Meta Platforms Inc. and other social media companies of addicting children to their products.

The Meta chief executive officer is set to make his case at a hearing Friday in California federal court. A ruling in Zuckerberg's favor would dismiss him as a personal defendant in the litigation with no impact on the allegations against Meta.

Holding him personally responsible may be a challenge because of a corporate law tradition of shielding executives from liability, especially at larger companies where decision-making is often layered. A victory against the billionaire who launched Facebook with friends as a Harvard undergraduate two decades ago could encourage claims against other CEOs in mass personal injury litigation.

Zuckerberg faces allegations from young people and parents that he was repeatedly warned that Instagram and Facebook weren't safe for children but ignored the findings and publicly stated the opposite was true. Plaintiffs contend that as the face of Meta, Zuckerberg has a responsibility to "speak fully and truthfully on the risks Meta's platforms pose to children's health."

"With great power comes great responsibility," plaintiffs' lawyers said in a court filing, quoting the Spider Man comics in a footnote. "Unfortunately, Mr. Zuckerberg has not lived up to that maxim."

Zuckerberg, the world's fourth-richest person as of Thursday, has argued that he can't be held personally responsible for actions at Meta just because he's the CEO. As for the statements made by Zuckerberg himself, his lawyers claim that they were generalized or covered by the US Constitution's First Amendment protection of free speech and that Zuckerberg didn't have a duty to disclose the safety findings that were allegedly reported to him.

US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, who is overseeing the cases, has asked lawyers on both sides to clarify about how laws covering negligent misrepresentation and corporate officer responsibility vary among individual states.

The cases naming Zuckerberg are a small subset of a collection of more than 1,000 suits 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. Rogers recently allowed some claims to proceed against the companies while dismissing others.

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

Pinning blame on an executive for unlawful conduct typically hinges on showing their involvement in relevant day-to-day decisions or their knowledge of the practices at issue. It's generally easier to assign executive liability at smaller companies, where an individual's direct participation in decision-making can be clearer. At large companies, liability comes down to proving control over decision-making.

Lawyers for Zuckerberg didn't respond to a request for comment.

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

The case is In Re Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation, 22-md-03047, US District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).