District Court says Massachusetts law will apply in choice-of-law privacy dispute
On June 28, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina ruled that it will apply Massachusetts law to negligence claims in a putative class action concerning a cloud-based services provider’s allegedly lax data-security practices. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendant’s “security program was inadequate and that the security risks associated with the Personal Information went unmitigated, allowing  cybercriminals to gain access.” During discovery, the defendant (headquartered in South Carolina) stated that its U.S. data centers are located in Massachusetts, Texas, California, and New Jersey, and that the particular servers that housed the plaintiffs’ data (and were the initial entry point for the ransomware attack) are physically located in Massachusetts. While both parties stipulated to the application of South Carolina choice-of-law principles generally, the plaintiffs specifically requested that South Carolina law be applied to their common law claims of negligence, negligence per se, and invasion of privacy since it was the state where defendant executives made the cybersecurity-related decisions that allegedly allowed the data breach to occur. However, the defendant countered that the law of each state where a plaintiff resides should apply to that specific plaintiff’s common law tort claims because the “damages were felt in their respective home states.” Both parties presented an alternative argument that if the court found the primary choice-of-law theory to be unfounded, then Massachusetts law would be appropriate as “Massachusetts was the state where the last act necessary took place because that is where the data servers were housed.”
In determining which state’s common-law principles apply, the court stated that even if some of the cybersecurity decisions were made in South Carolina, the personal information was stored on servers in Massachusetts. Moreover, the “alleged decisions made in South Carolina may have contributed to the breach, but they were not the last act necessary to establish the cause of action,” the court wrote, noting that in order for the defendant to be potentially liable, the data servers would need to be breached. The court further concluded that “South Carolina’s choice of law rules dictate that where an injury occurs, not where the result of the injury is felt or discovered is the proper standard to determine the last act necessary to complete the tort.” As such, the court stated that Massachusetts law will apply as that is where the data breach occurred.