As we have reported over the last several months, information and data privacy have become hot button issues in litigation. Even still, it appears the trend in many jurisdictions has been to force fit many of these claims into predetermined, well established legal principles like negligence or breach of contract. That trend, however, may be falling by the wayside in Pennsylvania where at least one Common Pleas judge has found that plaintiffs alleging misuse of their personally identifiable information (PII) may, in some instances, bring a newly recognized cause of action for defamation.
In Griffith v. PPL Susquehanna LLC, a pair of plaintiffs filed suit against their former employer which operated a nuclear power facility in Salem Township, Pennsylvania. In particular, the plaintiffs alleged that PPL defamed them after their respective tenures at the Salem power plant ended by spreading false information through the Personnel Access Data System (PADS), a centralized database used by nuclear facilities throughout the country to process industry workers. According to the plaintiffs, PPL used the PADS system to share unspecified “falsehoods” that prevented them from finding work at other nuclear facilities in retaliation for whistleblowing safety violations at the Salem site.
In response to the plaintiffs’ suit, PPL filed two rounds of preliminary objections aimed, in part, at dismissing the defamation claims. Specifically, PPL argued that because the PADS system is not a public access vehicle, but rather for the internal use of the nuclear industry, the plaintiffs could not prove that false personal information had been published against them. Unconvinced, however, Common Pleas Judge Denis P. Cohen concluded that the alleged dissemination of this personnel information by PPL to other members of the nuclear industry via the PADS system was legally sufficient to sustain a cause of action for defamation because plaintiffs alleged that the sharing of personal information caused lost employment opportunities.
Griffith demonstrates that information and data privacy claims continue to rapidly evolve in litigation. Where even months ago, plaintiffs challenging the use of their PII may have been asked to fit their claims into preexisting molds in order to sustain recovery, Griffith in some ways signals a new reality wherein courts are responding to such litigation with greater flexibility and creativity. Thanks to Adam Gomez for his contribution. Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.