On May 28, 2019, a federal jury returned a verdict awarding $1,000 to each of the roughly 68,000 class members whose criminal history was made publicly available online. The jury found that Bucks County willfully violated Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Records Information Act (“CHRIA”) and awarded the statutory minimum to each of the class members. As a result, Bucks County could pay up to $68 million in punitive damages.
This case arises out of Bucks County’s inclusion of protected information in its “Inmate Lookup Tool.” At one point, the database contained information about the arrests of tens of thousands of individuals who had been held at the county’s correctional facility. In 2012, the class representative filed suit after he discovered that information about his expunged arrest from 1998 was publically available. Plaintiff sought injunctive relief and actual and punitive damages under section 9183 of CHRIA.
The district court granted Plaintiff’s summary judgment motion on the issue of liability and granted his motion for class certification. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed both decisions. The only issue submitted to the jury was whether Bucks County willfully violated CHRIA and if so, the amount of punitive damages to be awarded.
CHRIA regulates criminal justice agencies in the handling of criminal history record information. Section 9183(b) of CHRIA contains a statutory damages provision that sets a range of damages for aggrieved parties. The statute states, “[e]xemplary and punitive damages of not less than $1,000 nor more than $10,000 shall be imposed for any violation of this chapter…found to be willful.” The Third Circuit found that the government defendants fell within the statute’s regulation and could be subject to punitive damages.
The jury determined that Bucks County willfully violated the statute and awarded the minimum damages permitted. The statutory damages provision opened the county to huge liability to class members whose actual damages might have been nonexistent.
The verdict against Bucks County illustrates how statutory damages provisions raise the stakes in class action litigation.