An insurance trust representing Minnesota counties has agreed to pay $2 million to settle a potential class action lawsuit over drivers license data snooping.
The proposed settlement, presented Thursday in federal court, is the largest payout so far over misuse of drivers license files -- which has spurred a raft of lawsuits in recent months. The impact on taxpayers will likely be felt through governments paying higher insurance premiums to the Minnesota Counties Insurance Trust, which provides liability coverage to all but the state's largest counties.
The only other major drivers license snooping case that reached a settlement was brought by former cop Anne Marie Rasmusson, who won more than $1 million in damages from local governments after alleging her data had been routinely viewed.
Thursday's case involved a child support officer in Rock County, Janet Patten, who allegedly made more than 4,000 photo queries of the Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) database in 2010 and 2011. Patten was fired and several law firms sued on behalf of about 3,000 people who received data breach letters.
"She looked up friends and neighbors and co-workers and workers in other counties," Rock County administrator Kyle Oldre said last year. "It was just people she knew. And she spent a ton of time doing it."
A criminal investigation did not turn up any nefarious intent.
The DVS database, which is protected by federal law against misuse, contains photographs,addresses and driving records on Minnesotans with a license. A state audit last year found that it was being routinely abused by law enforcement and other public employees.
Plaintiffs in the case are attempting to certify it as a class action, which would cover anyone who Patten illegitimately looked up during the specified time period. The targets of illegimate lookups will receive a share of the money "based on the number of times they were illegitimately searched."
The "named" plaintiffs who initially brought the suit would receive an "incentive payment" of $500 each. The complete settlement must still be approved by a federal judge.
The implications for other DVS cases are murky. The Patten suit was the largest case brought against the counties insurance trust, whose members have been named in 44 claims, and one of only two seeking class action status.
Robyn Sykes, executive director of the counties insurance trust, said the size of the case influenced their decision. "We talked about the fact of the case, the size of the class, all of those kinds of things I think kind of played into the issue of settling this one," said Sykes, who could only remember one other settlement of $2 million since the mid-1990s.
Rock County, one of Minnesota's smallest counties, will pay a deductible as a result of the settlement, but "everybody's going to feel a little of the tremor of this particular case and all the other [DVS] claims," Sykes said.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys said Thursday that the size of the class would likely be about 2,400 people, making the award per lookup approximately $300. Many people were looked up once, while several were looked up several times.
The attorneys said that the federal law outlining penalties for misuse of driver records, the Drivers Privacy Protection Act, was intended to have a deterrent effect.
“Violation of laws enacted by our Congress is not a trivial thing,” said attorney Bob Bennett. “Those of us that went to law school, and sensible people who didn’t, understand that you can’t have a right without a remedy.”
Last month, a judge dismissed another major class action DVS claim against the state, ruling that state officials could not be held liable for the actions of one employee.