California Supreme Court Slices Through Privacy Rights, Opens Corporate Records To Class-action Counsel
As MIPTC reported to you last April, Pioneer Electronics filed a challenge to a class-action plaintiff's request for the contact information for everyone who's written complaining to Pioneer about their DVD players. Pioneer was trying to keep the size of the class down, while the plaintiff was trying to increase the size of the class. In other words, it all turned on money: whether it was going to stay either in Pioneer's pocket or in the pockets of the class-action attorneys and the class.
The flag that both sides waved before the courts, however, was privacy. Yours, if you've ever written in to Pioneer Electronics asking to have your defective DVD repaired or replaced under the terms of the warranty.
The trial court required the parties to submit what's known as a "Colonial Life" letter because it thought your privacy rights were paramount. That letter was to be sent by Pioneer to you asking your consent to provide your name to the class-action plaintiff. The net effect of such a letter cuts class actions down to practically nothing because virtually no one responds to junk mail. The trial court modified the letter, though and said if you don't reply, then your information will be provided to class-action counsel.
As you can imagine, Pioneer appealed. The court of appeal, on the other hand, vacated the trial court's order, and restored the "Colonial Life" letter requirements. Again, as you can imagine this time, the class-action plaintiff appealed to the California Supreme Court.
The Supremes reversed the court of appeal and essentially ordered the parties back to the trial court's version of the notification to potential class-action members. Now, Pioneer will send the letter and then if you fail to respond, give up your private information to class-action attorneys. The California Supreme Court reasoned in part that if you wrote to Pioneer asking for warranty coverage, you probably wouldn't have much of an objection to someone invading your privacy rights and learning about this class action.
The case is a two-sided sword, with one blade slicing through your privacy rights while the other blade slices through Pioneer's checkbook.