Product or Speech? Rich Beaulieu, Davis Walsh Discuss Law of Data Analytics

July 23, 2019

Are data analytics considered products for the purpose of liability lawsuits, or speech cloaked with the protections of the First Amendment? McGuireWoods partner Richard Beaulieu and associate Davis Walsh explored the issue in a July 17 Law360 “Expert Analysis” column.

In the Information Age, data analysis drives most every commercial endeavor — enterprises as different as real estate, airlines and professional baseball — with estimates that more than $203 billion worth of data and analysis tools will be sold in 2020.

A U.S. District Court in New Jersey ruled recently that data analysis supporting a public safety assessment was speech, not a product. The analysis was used to support releasing a defendant pretrial and the defendant allegedly then committed murder. Because the analysis was deemed speech and not a product, the mother of the slain man could not sue under the New Jersey Products Liability Act, the court held.

The judge “held that the results of data analysis are more like the ideas in a book than an intangible ‘product’ like electricity,” Walsh and Beaulieu wrote. “This holding seems to fit awkwardly in a modern world that runs on data analysis no less than it runs on electricity.”

They noted that the ruling “raises more legal questions than it answers.” For instance, they said, is a company that sells custom data analytics products selling a product or a service, or is it constitutionally protected speech? The same question applies to companies that market off-the-shelf analytical tools.