Tort Liability from Data Thefts

Tort Liability from Data Thefts: The Race is to the Swift

A thief breaks into the corporate headquarters of your digital media company and steals a laptop. He uses the laptop to gain access to your customers’ files, and gleans sensitive information, including their drivers license data, social security numbers and bank account data. Can you be liable to customers for this theft? The answer, at present, is theoretically “yes”, but in many cases, “no” — if you take the right steps.

Many states have statutes protecting personal information of consumers. For example, the California Civil Code requires businesses to: (i) destroy personal information when it is no longer to be retained by the business; (ii) “implement and maintain reasonable security procedures” to protect personal information from unauthorized access; (iii) disclose any breach of security which has caused disclosure of personal information, and (iv) disclose any personal information provided to third parties on the consumer’s request. (Fn 1) The Civil Code provides that a customer may sue to recover damages, as well as injunctive relief, for any violation of these rules. (Fn 2)

So if a thief steals your customer data, and your failure to meet these standards causes your customers to suffer losses — yes — you can be found liable.

But, while these laws have been on the books for about five years, they do not seem to have resulted in a lot of large judgments. There are no reported appellate cases directly dealing with any of them and few unreported court orders mention them.

One reason for this may be the sheer economics of consumer rights litigation. Most consumer rights cases involve small dollars. Because the plaintiff generally must bear his own attorneys fees, few cases hold the promise of a sufficiently large recovery to warrant paying the fees to win the case. This is why the real action in consumer rights cases is in consumer class actions. Combining thousands or millions of cases together can yield sufficient damages to justify the attorney time expended. In addition, bringing a case as a class action may give plaintiffs an argument that they are also entitled to an attorney fee award under state statutes awarding fees for actions taken in the public interest or in defense of civil rights. (Fn 3)

However, even data theft cases brought as class actions have faced significant hurdles. This is mainly because the lead plaintiffs have often been unable to allege actual injuries resulting from the cyber security breach.