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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

6th Circuit: Merchant indemnified against card breach costs

Courts Sixth Circuit Appellate Payment Processors Credit Cards Data Breach Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Indemnification

Courts

On June 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that an agreement between a Texas-based merchant and a payment processor did not require the merchant to pay millions of dollars in damage-control costs related to two card system data breaches. After the data breaches, the payment processor withheld routine payment card transaction proceeds from the merchant, asserting that the merchant was responsible for reimbursing the amount that the issuing banks paid to cardholders affected by the breaches. However, the merchant refused to pay the payment processor, relying on a “consequential damages waiver” contained in the agreement.

The payment processor argued that, under the agreement’s indemnification clause and provision covering third-party fees and charges, the merchant retained liability for assessments passed down from the card brands’ acquiring bank. The district court, however, granted summary judgment to the merchant, finding that the merchant was not liable for the card brands’ assessments. The court further ruled that the payment processor materially breached the agreement when it diverted funds to reimburse itself.

On review, the 6th Circuit agreed with the lower court that the assessments “constituted consequential damages” and that the agreement exempted consequential damages from liability under a “conspicuous limitation” to the indemnification clause. According to the 6th Circuit, the “data breaches, resulting reimbursement to cardholders, and levying of assessments, though natural results” of the merchant’s failure to comply with the Payment Card Industry's Data Security Standards, “did not necessarily follow from it.” In addition, the appellate court agreed with the district court’s holding that third-party fees and charges in the contract refer to routine charges associated with card processing services rather than liability for a data breach. The appellate court also concurred that the payment processor’s decision to withhold routine payment card transactions, constituted a material breach of the agreement.

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