Showing posts with label affirmative duty. Show all posts
Showing posts with label affirmative duty. Show all posts

Friday, April 3, 2020

Commonwealth wins two in tort: one, bad presentment; two, no duty to juvenile assaulted in contractor custody

The Commonwealth prevailed in two tort suits under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act at the end of February.  One case, a slip-and-fall, was decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on the procedural ground of untimely presentment.  The other case, involving a physical assault on a juvenile with tragic consequences, was decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court on the merits of attenuated duty and causation in civil rights liability.

Leicester Town Hall, 2006.
Photo by Pvmoutside CC BY-SA 3.0.
In the first case, "plaintiff, Katherine Drake, slipped and fell at Leicester High School while picking up her grandson during school hours. She suffered multiple injuries, including a fractured knee and wrist."  Drake mailed her presentment (notice, or demand) letter to the Town of Leicester precisely on the two-year anniversary of the accident.  The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act requires presentment within two years, and the Commonwealth moved to dismiss on grounds of untimeliness.

The Supreme Judicial Court declined to construe the statute liberally.  "Drake does not contend that her mailed letter could have arrived on that same day, nor does she contest that the office of the proper executive officer received the presentment letter ... a full two years and three days after she was injured," the court observed.  "Given our conclusion that presentment occurs upon delivery to the office of the proper executive officer," the court affirmed dismissal.

Long Island in Boston Harbor, 2008.  Photo by Doc Searles CC BY-SA 2.0.
The second case described horrific injury inflicted on a juvenile in state custody.  A "youthful offender," Williams was in Casa Isla, "a program for juvenile males located in a facility (now closed) on Long Island in Boston Harbor. Casa Isla was operated by Volunteers of America of Massachusetts, Inc. (VOA), a nonprofit entity under contract with [the Department of Youth Services (DYS)] to operate youth residential programs." (There were other problems at Casa Isla, e.g., MassLive, WBUR.)  During a flag football game, Williams was randomly attacked by a 17-year-old resident of another VOA-operated treatment program on the island, Project Rebound, who "said he wanted to get 'kicked out.'"  After the attack, Williams experienced worsening headaches and bodily pain, but initially was given only ibuprofen.  After later emergency medical intervention, Williams was diagnosed as having "suffered ... a middle cerebral artery stroke, seizures, and cerebral edema. As a result, he now has severe and permanent brain damage. Williams currently resides in a residential program and requires twenty-four hour care."

The last bridge to Long Island was demolished in 2015.
Photo by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0 (2017).
Upon suit under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, the courts rejected state liability upon various theories of DYS responsibility for the conduct of contractor VOA.  DYS and the Commonwealth had no direct involvement with the management of Casa Isla or Project Rebound, so had not even the predicate knowledge that might support liability on a civil rights theory.  Accordingly, the Appeals Court affirmed in rejecting theories of Eighth Amendment, supervisory, and vicarious liability.  Similarly, absent any affirmative act by state officials, the Commonwealth, conversely, remained within the protection of state sovereign immunity.

Associate Justice William J. Meade
Drake's case reinforces the importance of legal educators continuing to teach the 19th-century "mailbox rule," however much Generations Y and Z might not intuitively apprehend its logic.  Williams's case, however sorrowful the outcome, reinforces basic (no affirmative) duty doctrine in "constitutional tort."  As a policy matter, Williams's case also might raise questions about the wisdom of outsourcing juvenile custody without providing for public accountability.  Oh, and let's make a new rule: Anytime you're going to imprison people on a harbor island with a grisly history, that raises a red flag.

The cases are Drake v. Town of Leicester, No. SJC-12781 (Mass. Feb. 28, 2020) (Court Listener, Suffolk Law, Mass. Lawyers Weekly), and Baptiste v. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, No. 18-P-1353 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 28, 2020) (Justia).  Justice David A. Lowy wrote for a unanimous court in Drake.  Justice Meade wrote for a unanimous panel with Shin and Singh, JJ., in Baptiste.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Court refuses to dismiss Harvard in student-suicide suit

The Massachuetts Superior Court, per Judge Michael D. Ricciuti, denied Harvard University's motion to dismiss a negligence claim brought by the parent of a student, Luke Tang, who committed suicide on campus in 2015.  The case comes in the wake of a 2018 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision refusing to allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to be held responsible for a student's suicide.

Luke Tang lived at Harvard's Lowell House.  (Photo by Carrie Anderson
CC BY-SA 2.0)
In the 2015 case, Nguyen v. MIT, discussed here, the SJC ruled that the university-student relationship does not support a duty in tort law akin to the custodial relationship between a parent and child, or custodian and dependent.  That ruling was consistent with historic and enduring common law norms, which hold that a person's intentional suicide, in some jurisdictions a crime, interrupts the chain of duty and causation that would link the death to any earlier-in-time carelessness.

However, the SJC left open the possibility that a university could be responsible for a suicide if the decedent had been in a "special relationship" with the defendant.  "Special relationship" is a term of art in tort law, referring to the very relationships in which public policy supports a person's expectation of care from another.

In the instant case, Tang v. Harvard College, plaintiff seeks to pin liability on Harvard and its employees through that very allowance for special relationships.  As reported by the Harvard Crimson last year, Tang was known to Harvard as a suicide risk.  Tang had been transported to a hospital after a suicide attempt freshman year.  When he returned to school, he signed an agreement with Harvard that he would stay in counseling with Harvard mental health staff.  Returning to school after the summer, though, Tang failed to keep his appointments, and the complaint alleges that Harvard failed to follow up.

Special relationships in tort law can be created when a medical professional undertakes care of a patient, or when any person voluntarily takes on the responsibility of caring for another, which can be signified by action or contract.  Tang's theory of special relationship resonates in those ways, considering the counseling function of Harvard staff and the agreement that Tang signed with Harvard.

Superior Court Justice Michael D. Ricciuti found sufficient basis to distinguish Nguyen.  Justice Ricciuti wrote, "Harvard's argument to dismiss this case reduces Nguyen to a check-box, and that once a university checks one of the three boxes—a protocol, or if there is none, clinical care, or if that is refused, reaching an emergency contact—its duty ends regardless of how well or poorly the university fulfils its duty. That interpretation cannot be correct."

Justice Ricciuti is himself a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law.  A native of Quincy, Massachusetts, he was in private practice and served as federal prosecutor before being confirmed to the bench.

The case is Tang v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 18-2603 (Mass. Super. Ct. Sept. 9, 2019).  Hat tip @ Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (pay wall).  Read more at The Harvard Crimson.  For a short time, I will park a copy of Justice Ricciuti's ruling here.

A documentary film about Luke Tang, Looking for Luke, seeks to raise awareness of mental health problems affecting young people.  Here is the trailer.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

My Summer Book Report


I squeezed in some leisure reads this summer:

  • Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus.  Yes, I drank the Harari Kool-Aid.  I am a true believer. Frightfully enjoyable stuff.  Sapiens is on my desk now.
  • Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me.  Poor Ian McEwan (Atonement) has taken it on the chin from scifi fans for daring to dabble in the genre in this thought-provoking book that I quite adore.  Sure, the basic question of "Data"'s humanity (cf. ST:TNG) is trodden territory, but give a guy some credit for doing his homework and bringing his signature writing flair to the table in this page turner.  It's a far better book than Solar.  We don't talk about that.
  • David Sedaris, Calypso.  Unfathomable how his books go from best to even better.  You must have David read you his audiobooks. 
  • Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.  Essential reading for the legally inclined.  Can’t wait for the movie.  Three words: Michael. B. Jordan!
  • Luis Alberto Urrea, The House of Broken Angels.  For my fellow book group member who’s a LatAm aficionado, I am willing to revisit the trippy genre of my undergrad lit major once per year.  It’s always a, um, magic carpet ride, if you will.

And here is the most interesting stuff I read this summer, professional edition.  These are the categories!
·         Torts
·         Legal Education
·         Popular Culture
·         Self-Improvement

Torts

Kenneth S. Abraham & Leslie Kendrick, There’s No Such Thing as Affirmative Duty, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2018-59 (on SSRN).  OK, so maybe I didn’t actually read this 65-page paper.  Instead I read about it, and who could do otherwise?, when Anthony Sebok at Cardozo Law wrote such a great review for JOTWELL.  Abraham and Kendrick call for abandoning the Restatements’ wearisome struggle to chart the contours of affirmative duty.  Instead they would take what I would describe as a more European approach, looking at duty, affirmative or otherwise, as a function of risk creation.  I do think this approach has a bead on the doctrinally drifting direction of duty from the Second to Third Restatements, so maybe this is the future.  Sebok aptly observes that this kind of thinking jives with Stephen Sugarman’s proposed merger of intent and negligence.  Fortunately I’m less than 20 years from retirement, because I fear that by that time, torts will just be a squishy blob of relativistic uncertainty not unlike the inside of an atom.  Teaching that will be for younger minds.

Free Speech, Freedom of Information, and Privacy

Enrico Bonadio & Nicola Lucchi, Copyright and Pornography, in Non-Conventional Copyright: Do New and Non-Traditional Works Deserve Protection? 418 (Enrico Bonadio & Nicola Lucchi eds. 2018) (SSRN).  Copyright.  Pornography.  You do the math.  Seriously, worth a read, and informative multinational perspective.

Adam Candeub, Nakedness and Publicity, ___ Iowa L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2019) (SSRN).  Adam Candeub at Michigan State Law explores the right of publicity as a revenge-porn remedy.  And why not?  Tort and IP’s disfigured offspring does so much else….

Megan Deitz, Note, A Crime Remembered: The Possible Impact of the “Right to be Forgotten” in the United States for Crime Victims, Criminal Defendants, and the Convicted, 9 Ala. C.R. & C.L. L. Rev. 197 (2018).  Kudos, Megan Deitz, J.D. U. Ala. ’18.  This is what I was talking about.  Ban the box is great, but it’s not going to get us there.  And to think that I found this article through an AEJMC newsletter…  heresy!

Anthony L. Fargo, Protecting Journalists’ Sources Without a Shield: Four Proposals, 24 Comm. L. & Pol’y 145 (2019) (abstract at T&F).  Tony Fargo at Indiana University-Bloomington has pursued a range of interests in his career—he’s the founding director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies—but all the while remained the national authority on reporter’s privilege.  With a federal shield law a long time not coming, this articles explores alternatives in (1) whistleblower protection, (2) government transparency to disincentivize leaking, (3) legal protection for anonymous sources, and (4) encryption tech.

Giovanni De Gregorio, Secret Filming and the Right to Inform Under an European Constitutional Perspective: The Case of Alpha Doryforiki v. Greece, 2:2 Rivista di Diritto dei Media 410 (2018) (SSRN).  I’m a fan of European privacy law, but even the most committed fan has to admit that it has generated some absurd results.  Count among them the notion that investigative journalists secretly recording corruption run the risk of violating politicians’ privacy rights.  Giovanni De Gregorio reviews the latest case law.  For heaven’s sake, no one tell the bureaucrats in Texas (see Texas v. Doyle, infra).

Thomas Healy, Anxiety and Influence: Learned Hand and the Making of a Free Speech Dissent, 50 Ariz. St. L.J. 803 (2018) (SSRN).  The relationship between Judges Hand and Holmes, and especially Hand’s slow-cooking influence on modern First Amendment jurisprudence as a result, has been the intriguing study of many writings before, Healy’s included.  Nevertheless, in this compelling essay, Thomas Healy at Seton Hall Law here revisits the subject for a close look, laying out the timeline and examining exactly what Holmes’s evolving position took and did not take from Hand’s earnest offerings.

Matteo Monti, Automated Journalism and Freedom of Information: Ethical and Juridical Problems Related to AI in the Press Field, 1:1 Opinio Juris in Comparatione: Studies in Comparative and National Law (2018) (SSRN).  I am not a fan of the trend that puts “and AI” after everything, and voila!, new article, new theory, new field of law, new main dish.  All the same, this article on AI implications for journalism, with an especial eye to the problem of tort liability, is a neat, thoughtful, and very readable roundup from an unexpected source.  Don’t be confused by the title: in American parlance, this is more about free speech, or free flow of information, not FOI in the access sense.  Matteo Monti is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Law, Politics, and Development of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, a public university in Pisa.

Let's burn some books, Dark Ages style! And maybe a philosopher, too.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, c.1515–27, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1917.)
Ada Palmer, How #Article13 is Like the Inquisition: John Milton Against the EU #CopyrightDirective, BoingBoing, Mar. 24, 2019.  This.  Is.  Brilliant.  This short essay should be required reading for every human being with an internet connection.  Don’t let the title’s narrow references to copyright and the EU throw you off; the implications of this piece are breathtaking.  Ada Palmer, University of Chicago history professor and science fiction writer, analogizes internet content filtering—the kind that everyone now is clamoring for Google, Facebook, and Twitter to double down on—to the very press licensing that earned John Milton’s critical condemnation in the Areopagitica, circa 1644.  It’s a downright terrifying proposition that leaves me wondering whether our best intentions are not already about the industry of turning the internet into the most repressive thought regime in the history of human civilization.  Best not read just before bed.

Texas v. Doyle, No. PD-0254-18 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. Feb. 27, 2019) (via Texas Tribune).  I’m just going to say it, because we’re all thinking it, and something needs to be done: there’s something wrong with the water in Texas.  This case is the latest in what’s going on a decades-long saga of First Amendment challenges to the Texas Open Meetings Act (OMA).  You read that right: public officials are claiming that the open meetings act violates their First Amendment rights.  It would be funny, except they won.

Admittedly and rightly, the First Amendment calls for heightened scrutiny of criminal laws (and tort law) when violation is accomplished only by First Amendment-protected activity, such as speech.  Texas officials have long and fruitfully argued that the criminal-enforcement provisions of the OMA deprive them of their First Amendment right to communicate with one another.  Specifically, they contest the vagueness of applying the OMA to “meetings”—such as serial, or “daisy chain,” communications—alleged to subvert the OMA.

First Amendment problems in criminal law are often overcome by mere scienter; ask Michelle Carter’s counsel about that.  But it’s famously difficult to prove intent to subvert a freedom of information act, so transparency advocates have fought for enforcement mechanisms that operate shy of criminal intent.  I honestly don’t know whether this problem in Texas resulted from overzealous enforcement or opportunistic politicians in smoke-filled rooms, but the nonsense has got to stop.  I’ve seen OMA violations in other states, and I’ve seen innocent non-compliance, and I’ve never been confused about the difference between the two.

Legal Education

Lawrence J. Trautman, The Value of Legal Writing, Law Review, and Publication, 51 Ind. L. Rev. 693 (2018) (SSRN).  A business law professor at Western Carolina University, Lawrence Trautman capably offers this hefty opus, the latest entry in the legal-scholarship-matters genre.  The addition is welcome, as if more evidence should be needed to refute the snarky, anti-intellectual, and ultimately counter-factual rhetoric about the uselessness of legal scholarship (much less legal writing).  (See my own missive of some years ago for background, hat tip at UMass Law Review and Steve Zoni.)  In his abstract, Trautman “hope[s] this Article may become a required reading as one of the first assignments for all incoming first-year law students, or even before any classes begin.”  I’m down with that, but we might need an abbreviated version.

Popular Culture

Charles Duhigg, The Real Roots of American Rage, The Atlantic, Jan./Feb. 2019.  It goes without saying that everything in The Atlantic, my favorite magazine, is worth reading.  But my wife thought to point out this article to me.  I’m trying not to read too much into that.  Pulitzer-Prize winner Charles Duhigg takes a deep dive into outrage in our present social and political environment—newly salient upon the Dayton and El Paso shootings.  Building out from some groundwork in psychology by UMass Amherst’s James Averill, Duhigg establishes that ignoring our social anger or suppressing it is maybe the worst thing we could do.  He explores research that shows instead a possible way forward.

Self-Improvement

Jon Acuff, Do Over: Make Today the First Day of Your New Career (2015).  Just a couple years ago, I discovered Jon Acuff.  Yeah, I know, I got there late.  Anyway, I read the free preview, chapter 1, of his 2015 book, Do Over.  You can too.  I’m not going to read the rest, because I more or less like my job (underpaid), and I’m not really the self-help-reading sort.  Nevertheless, I liked this, as I seem to like just about everything Jon Acuff writes and says.  He makes me smile.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Mass. supreme court: MIT owed no duty in suicide case

Today the high court of Massachusetts held no duty, as a matter of law, in a wrongful death case of attenuated duty and causation in which the plaintiff sought to hold the Massachusetts Institute of Technology liable in negligence for a struggling student's suicide.  The court left the door open for proof of a special relationship on different facts.

Tort watchers and university counsel near and far have been awaiting the decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, No. SJC-12329 (May 7, 2018).  The November 7 oral argument in the case is online here.
 
A university-student relationship is not completely outside the custodial scope that gives rise to a duty in tort law in K12, the court held; nor is it completely the same.  Rather, the court "must ... take into account a complex mix of competing considerations.  Students are adults but often young and vulnerable; their right to privacy and their desire for independence may conflict with their immaturity and need for protection."

With regard to a suicide risk, reasonable foreseeability is key to the special relationship/duty analysis.  Relevant factors include whether student reliance on the university impeded others who might have rendered aid, as might occur in a student-residential environment; and, from research by emerita Washington & Lee University Law School professor Ann MacLean Massie, the court quoting,

"degree of certainty of harm to the plaintiff; burden upon the defendant to take reasonable steps to prevent the injury; some kind of mutual dependence of plaintiff and defendant upon each other, frequently . . . involving financial benefit to the defendant arising from the relationship; moral blameworthiness of defendant's conduct in failing to act; and social policy considerations involved in placing the economic burden of the loss on the defendant."
In discussing the flexibility of this analysis, Judge Learned Hand's famous BPL test made an appearance (a test customarily directed to breach rather than duty), off-setting the gravity of a suicide by probability, and balancing the result against the burden on the university of employing effective preventive measures.  The court also emphasized the dispositive nature of actual knowledge: "Where a university has actual knowledge of a student's suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student's stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm."

In the instant case, "Nguyen never communicated by words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, and any prior suicide attempts occurred well over a year before matriculation."  He also strove to partition his mental health treatment from his academic life.

The court upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the tort claims as a matter of law.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Court holds no duty/no cause in rape case against state


Sovereign immunity and affirmative duty were at issue in a state tort claims act case of tragic facts decided 3-2 upon rehearing in the Massachusetts Appeals Court on April 12.  Pedagogically, the case well illustrates the famous interchangeability of duty and causation, my favorite articulation of which appeared in then-Circuit Judge Scalia’s footnote 4 in Romero v. NRA, 749 F.2d 77, ¶ 10 (D.C. Cir. 1984).  On the nuts and bolts, the case well reiterates and demonstrates the strict application of the no-affirmative-duty rule under the state tort claims act, even in a famously progressive jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Jane J. alleged rape by a male patient while they both occupied the recreational TV room of a locked unit of the Tewksbury State Hospital.  The court engaged solely with the question whether failure to segregate male and female patients in the rec room legally caused the rape under the state tort claims act.  Holding no cause, the court, per Justice Diana Maldonado, affirmed summary judgment for the Commonwealth.


Here illustrated in 1907, the Tewksbury State Hospital is on the National Register of Historic Places.


The classic American case of (no) affirmative state duty for law students studying due process in constitutional law is DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 489 U.S. 189 (1989).  The U.S. Supreme Court rejected liability for state failure to intervene and prevent fatal child abuse.  The case essentially restated the peculiarly American “no duty” doctrine of common law for the context of “constitutional tort.”  Thus the rule of no affirmative duty manifests across the contexts of common law, due process, and sovereign immunity.  The doctrine of federal law is replicated in the states, though may be varied by statutory interpretation when claims are controlled by state waivers of sovereign immunity in tort cases.  In this Massachusetts case, statutory interpretation of the state claims act molded the question into one of causation—though the DeShaney question nonetheless constitutes the heart of the inquiry.

Arguments focused on state claims act Mass. Gen. L. ch. 258, § 10(j).  In relevant part (a list of exceptions omitted here), the section maintains sovereign immunity against “any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.”  Thus the problem of affirmative duty is phrased in terms of “original[] cause[],” and the appeals court set out to determine whether non-segregation could be said to have been an “original cause” of the rape.

In the court’s interpretation, original cause is “strict,” requiring “‘an affirmative act [not a failure to act] … that creates the “condition or situation” that results in harm’” (quoting precedent; court’s added text; my italics).  The court recounted a series of cases rejecting recovery under § 10(j), including one case that held state lifeguards having negligently abandoned their posts was not the original cause of a drowning.  That result pertained even though the argument for an intact causal chain was stronger for lack of an intentional and criminal intervening actor.  Jane J.’s claim could not survive such strict examination.

Justice Gregory Massing, joined by Justice Peter Rubin, filed a vigorous dissent predicated on special relationship duty arising from involuntary commitment, or alternatively, on the merits, arguing in the latter vein that the “hospital ‘materially contributed to creating,’ and did not merely fail to prevent, the condition that resulted in the plaintiff’s being attacked in the common room.”

The case is Jane J. v. Commonwealth, No. 15-P-340 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 12, 2017) (Justia).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Intimate large parties and the duty to protect privacy



I had to take a blog break over the holidays in order to get a hefty book read and to write a review of it.  I’ll post on that when it comes closer to publication.  Meanwhile, my, how the world has changed!  Let me kick off the new year with a look at some related developments in privacy law.

As Marion Oswald of the University of Winchester wrote recently for the journal of Information Communication & Technology Law (open source), to paraphrase, privacy ain’t what it used to be.  Oswald opened with a quote from The Great Gatsby, so it goes without saying that that needs to be reiterated here.  She wrote,

At one of the Great Gatsby’s spectacular parties, the golf champion Jordan Baker remarked to Nick Carraway that she likes large parties: “They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

From that paradox, Oswald builds the case that privacy must be redefined to protect individuals in the digital world.  She observes the inadequacy of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) test—the U.S. Fourth Amendment standard—given the objective test’s tendency to drive itself to extinction in a world of objectively diminishing privacy.  Kade Crockford with the ACLU of Massachusetts articulates this point brilliantly in her lectures.  Oswald is not the first to reach her conclusion, but she does so compellingly.

Two recent cases, from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, reached different conclusions on the question of a corporate defendant’s duty to safeguard private data.  The cases show the struggle under way in U.S. courts to do just what Oswald proposed—to redefine privacy in the digital age.  The United States is increasingly at odds with Europe, and for that matter the rest of the world, on this question.  Heralded as a modern human right in Europe, data protection is a burgeoning global legal field—and corporate obligation.

Duty

First, a quick primer on duty in U.S. tort law.

Tort law in the United States usually provides for a “duty” by “default” in negligence—that is, all persons owe to all other a persons a duty to exercise reasonable care (or not to act negligently), to avert harm to all others.  But the default rule of duty is subject to some important limitations.   

One limitation is the economic loss rule, which circumscribes negligence liability.  The rule precludes a plaintiff’s action for nonphysical, economic injury alone.  There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, and some scholars even think it’s not really a rule at all.  For example, negligent misrepresentation, which is like fraud but without intent, can be supported by economic loss within the context and expectations of a business relationship.

Defamation and privacy torts can generate what looks like economic injury, but really are animated by their own, sui generis classes of damages to reputation and personality.  U.S. privacy torts push in the European direction, but generally do not protect data voluntarily disclosed to third parties, such as employers and banks—a relation of the REP problem.  That means no protection in privacy torts for financial data, even though it’s the stuff of identity theft.

The other limitation on duty by default is that U.S. law imposes no affirmative duty to protect, or to render aid.  This rule, too, is subject to many exceptions, such as a parent’s duty to protect a child, contractual and statutory duties to protect, and a duty not to abandon a rescue undertaken.

Here like in privacy law, European legal codes diverge from U.S. common law with a greater willingness to impose affirmative duty.  In the United States, the affirmative-duty limitation also can relieve a corporate entity of a duty to safeguard data when the injury to the plaintiff is caused much more immediately by an intervening bad actor, such as the hacker or identity thief.  (The problem in proximate causation is integrally related.)

So on to the cases.  Remember, "[i]t takes two to make an accident."

Pennsylvania

A January 12 Pennsylvania court decision, Dittman v. UPMC (Leagle) held that an employer had no duty to safeguard employees’ private information on a workplace computer.  (Hat tip to Richard Borden at Robinson + Cole.)  University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) employees numbering 62,000 alleged disclosure of personal information in a data breach, resulting in the theft of identities and of tax refunds.

The court applied a five-factor test for duty: 

1. the relationship between the parties;
2. the social utility of the actor's conduct;
3. the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred;
4. the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and,
5. the overall public interest in the proposed solution.

UPMC prevailed in common pleas and superior courts, the latter 2-1, arguing that it owed no duty to protect the plaintiff’s interests.  On the affirmative duty question, the court pointed to attenuated causation and professed willingness to defer to the state legislature.  As summarized by Brian J.Willett for the Reed Smith Technology Law Dispatch

The Superior Court observed that the social utility of electronic information storage is high, and while harm from data breaches is foreseeable, an intervening third party stealing data is a superseding cause.

Additionally, the Court explained that a judicially created duty of care would be unnecessary to motivate employers to protect employee information, as “there are still statutes and safeguards in place to prevent employers from disclosing confidential information” in addition to business considerations.

Finally, the Court agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that creating a duty in this context would not serve the public interest; rather, it would interrupt the deliberative legislative process and expend judicial resources needlessly.

The court then bolstered its conclusion by pointing to the economic loss rule as well. 

Massachusetts

Just before the holiday break in December, a Massachusetts Appeals Court also decided a case in which the plaintiff alleged an employer’s negligence in safeguarding private data—though the plaintiff was a client of the employer rather than an employee.

The facts recited by the court in Adams v. Congress Auto Insurance Agency, Inc. (Justia), have the makings of a docudrama.  According to the court, Thomas was fleeing police at high speed when he crashed his car into Adams's.  Thomas was driving the car of his girlfriend, Burgos, so Adams claimed against Burgos’s auto insurance.  Meanwhile Burgos was both customer and customer service manager of defendant insurance agency Congress.  She reported her car stolen and filed her own insurance claim. 

Adams could identify Thomas.  So Burgos used her computer access at work to identify Adams and passed his identity to Thomas.  Thomas then phoned Adams, impersonated a state police officer, and threatened Adams: “‘Shut the F up and get your car fixed or you will have issues,’” the court purported to quote.  Though I bet Thomas didn’t say just “F.”

Adams sued Congress on multiple theories, including negligent failure to safeguard private data.  At the trial level, according to the appeals court, “the motion judge . . . rul[ed] that expert testimony was required to establish whether the agency owed a duty to Adams to safeguard his personal information, what that duty entailed, and whether the agency breached that duty.”

It’s odd that the motions judge sought expert testimony, because, as the appeals court aptly observed, duty is unique among the four elements of negligence—duty, breach, proximate cause, and injury—for being purely a question of law, guided by public policy.  Courts do not ordinarily hear expert testimony on what the law is.  The theory goes that figuring that out is the judge’s main job.  (Too bad, or being a law professor would be more lucrative.  I was gently tossed from the witness stand once when a lawyer made a valiant but futile attempt to squeeze me past the rule.)

Unlike the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the Massachusetts Appellate Court found its way to a legal duty.  The court held “that the agency had a legal duty to Adams, a member of a large but clearly defined class of third parties, to prevent its employee’s foreseeable misuse of the information that Adams provided to process his automobile insurance claim.”  Where the Pennsylvania court had pointed to statute to justify judicial restraint, the Massachusetts court pointed to state data breach law to show that the legislature had green-lighted legal duty (albeit "a single green light, minute and far away").

“Just as those with physical keys to the homes of others have a duty of reasonable care to preserve their security,” the Massachusetts court reasoned, “companies whose employees have access to the confidential data of others have a duty to take reasonable measures to protect against the misuse of that data.”  Indeed, the court cited a keys case as applicable precedent.  The court made no fuss over the rule of affirmative duty or the rule of economic loss.  In a discussion of causation, the court seemed content to resort to foreseeability on the facts.

Summary judgment for defendant Congress was vacated, and the case was remanded for trial.

Conclusion

Advocates who wish to block European-style data protection in the United States use the availability of state tort law remedies as one tool in the toolbox to argue that U.S. law already sufficiently safeguards personal data from both sides of the Atlantic.  That’s not true.  Not yet.

Data protection in the United States is confounded by the rules of affirmative duty and economic loss.  And that’s not bad; those rules exist for sound public policy reasons.  They also are excepted for sound reasons.

I’ve written before (e.g., here and here) that popular thinking and expectations with respect to individual privacy are converging in the United States and Europe, even if a legal bridge lags behind.  Common law negligence can be a vital building block of that bridge.  But it’s a work in progress.

“‘Don’t believe everything you hear, Nick.’”