Duane Morris Synopsis: In Rogers v. BNSF Railway Co., Case No. 19-CV-03083 (N.D. Ill.), the first federal court jury trial in a case brought under the novel Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”), the plaintiffs secured a verdict in favor of the class of 45,000 workers against Defendant BNSF. After a week-long trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, the jury found that BNSF recklessly or intentionally violated the law 45,600 times. The Court thereafter entered against BNSF for $228 million. Post-trial motions are now before the Court, which raise significant issues for all companies that use biometric equipment.
On November 9, 2022, Defendant BNSF Railway Co. filed a motion for a new trial under Rule 59(a) or to reduce the damages award under Rule 59(e). It argues that none of the 45,000 class members suffered any actual harm. It also raised constitutional concerns about the BIPA.
This latest development suggests that BNSF is pulling out all the stops to challenge the precedent-setting $228 million judgment. The outcome of this motion and future appeals will profoundly shape the privacy class action landscape.
As we blogged about here, Plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit alleging that BNSF unlawfully required truck drivers entering the Company’s facilities to provide their biometric information through a fingerprint scanner. He claimed that BNSF collected the drivers’ fingerprints without first obtaining informed written consent or providing a written policy that complied with the BIPA and therefore violated sections 15(a) and (b) of the BIPA. BNSF argued that it did not operate the biometric equipment and instead sought to shift blame to a third-party vendor who operated the biometric equipment that collected drivers’ fingerprints.
The case proceeded before a jury in federal court in Chicago. The proceeding was closely watched, as it represented the very first time any class action had gone to a full trial with claims under the BIPA. The trial lasted five days. However, the jurors deliberated for just over an hour. Following the jury’s finding of liability, the Court entered a judgment against BNSF in the amount of $5,000 per violation, for a total amount of $228 million.
BNSF’s Motion For A New Trial Or Amended Judgment
BNSF renewed its motion for judgement as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 50(b), following the Court’s denial of BNSF’s Rule 50(a) motion at trial. In the alternative, BNSF moved for a new trial under Rule 59(a), or to reduce the damages award under Rule 59(e).
First, BNSF argues that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that BNSF violated the BIPA. Id. at *3. In support of that argument, BNSF cited testimony from its former Director of Technology Services that BNSF did not collect or obtain biometrics from truck drivers in Illinois, that the biometric data was stored on another entity’s server, and that BNSF did not maintain a copy of any of that data. Id. at *4.
Second, BNSF argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law or a new trial, or at least a significant reduction in damages, because there was insufficient evidence for a rational jury to conclude that BNSF violated the BIPA recklessly or intentionally 45,600 times — which is the basis for the $228 million damages award. Id. at *5-6. BNSF claims that there was no evidence that BNSF even learned about the BIPA until April 2019. Therefore, BNSF argued, no rational jury could have inferred from this evidence that BNSF consciously disregarded or intentionally violated the rights of Plaintiff and the class members at any point, much less for the full class period starting in April 2014.
Third, BNSF argued that the Court’s award of $228 million in damages where Plaintiff admits he and the members of the class have suffered no actual harm violates the Due Process Clause and Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution. BNSF points out that, “It is undisputed that neither Plaintiff nor any member of the class has suffered any actual harm from any alleged violation of BIPA. Given that the agreed value of the class’s injury is zero dollars, any award would be disproportional to such nonexistent harm.” Id. at *8-9.
Accordingly, BNSF seeks relief that the Court should enter judgment as a matter of law against Plaintiff and in favor of BNSF; or in the alternative, the Court should grant BNSF a new trial, or substantially reduce the damages award against BNSF.
The ball is now in Plaintiff’s court to respond to the motion. Further proceedings will then await the parties after full briefing of the post-trial motion.
Implications For Employers
BNSF’s filing of this motion indicates that the Company will not be going down (to the tune of $228 million) without a fight. The ultimate outcome of this motion, and any potential Seventh Circuit appeals, will be carefully scrutinized by both the plaintiff class action bar and businesses throughout Illinois and beyond.
Employers not only should continue to monitor this groundbreaking privacy class action lawsuit, but also ensure their strategic compliance plans are sufficient in regards to biometric privacy laws.