In an appeal involving an employer’s duty to safeguard confidential information, the Massachusetts Court of Appeal held that a lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of an automobile insurance company should be vacated. The lower court had found that the plaintiff had not met his duty of showing the company’s negligence in safeguarding his confidential information following a vehicle collision. An employee of the insurance company had access to the plaintiff’s information and provided it to her boyfriend, who intimidated the plaintiff, as a witness to the crash.
The plaintiff brought a case against the automobile insurance company, and a lower court dismissed four of his five claims. The plaintiff appealed the grant of summary judgment on his negligent failure to safeguard personal information claim. In this case, the facts indicated that an employee of the insurer had access to confidential data through work that included records maintained by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
The employee’s boyfriend had been driving, fleeing police while operating her automobile. He did not have a valid license at the time, and while driving, he struck a vehicle operated by the plaintiff. He abandoned the car and fled.
The plaintiff brought a claim against the employee’s automobile policy, and he provided a statement to a claims adjuster who was investigating the accident. Meanwhile, the employee filed a claim for the loss of her vehicle, which she reported as stolen. Through her access to confidential information, she obtained information and learned the plaintiff’s identity. On the next day, the plaintiff received a threatening call in which the employee’s boyfriend claimed to be a state police officer. He warned the plaintiff to drop the case.
In Boston Municipal Court, the employee and her boyfriend admitted that they conspired and were guilty of witness intimidation. Information in this matter shed light on another, separate incident in which the employee had been arrested for possession of a firearm. The insurance company had not conducted a further investigation into her arrest, since they had not deemed it “germane” to her employment.
In their analysis of the case, the court stated that a plaintiff must prove four elements to prevail in a negligence claim, including duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. The insurance agency challenged the plaintiff’s ability to satisfy these elements, since he had alleged a negligent failure to safeguard personal information. The judge had found that the plaintiff could not prove that the agency owed him a duty, nor that the agency’s negligence caused his injury.
While generally, the court stated, a person has no duty to control another person’s conduct to prevent them from harming a third person, there are exceptions within the employment context. Here, the court stated that the agency owed a duty to the plaintiff to prevent its employee’s misuse of information that the plaintiff had provided in order to process his car accident insurance claim.
A jury could find the agency breached its duty by failing to prevent a conflict of interest, since its employee had access to information regarding a claim against their own insurance company.
Second, the jury could find that the agency had negligently accepted the employee’s version of her criminal conduct regarding a separate federal firearms incident.
Since the employee in this case had access to confidential personal information of individuals within the Commonwealth, the agency had a duty to protect against any potential misuse of that data. If the agency had conducted a proper investigation into her earlier arrest, the court stated it would have discovered that the employee’s honesty and fitness might have been an issue.
The court stated that the jury should determine whether, based on the information known at the time, the agency should have allowed the employee continued access to confidential information. While the lower court found there was no causation, the appellate court stated that if an injury to the plaintiff was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s negligence, there was causation.
Finally, the court stated there were sufficient facts in the record that showed the plaintiff’s worsening physical symptoms, as proof of emotional distress, to submit the claim to the jury.
The appellate court remanded the case, finding that the agency’s motion for summary judgment regarding its negligent failure to safeguard the plaintiff’s personal information should be vacated.
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