At the end of 2021, two developments laid the groundwork for a definitive resolution of one of the most significant, yet unsettled, issues under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”)—claim accrual. While all litigants would appreciate some certainty surrounding this hot-button issue, resolution of when a BIPA violation “accrues” (i.e., occurs) will have a seismic impact on the trajectory of all BIPA litigation for years to come—depending on how the Illinois Supreme Court rules in the coming term.
Watson and Cothron BIPA Decisions
In mid-December 2021, an Illinois appellate panel in Watson v. Legacy Healthcare Financial Services, LLC, held BIPA claims accrue each and every time a defendant captures biometric information in violation of the statute, as opposed to only accruing at the first instance of collection.
Just a few days after Watson, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Cothron v. White Castle System, Inc.—another appeal involving claim accrual. But rather than decide when a BIPA claim accrues, and after acknowledging the existence of Watson, the Cothron court certified the question to the Illinois Supreme Court to provide definitive guidance.
While neither Watson nor Cothron offers a conclusive answer, the issue is now teed up to be definitely decided by Illinois’ highest court.
Impact & Implications
The accrual date is a significant issue in BIPA class action litigation. Depending on the circumstances, accrual can serve as the basis for a statute of limitations defense, which, if successful, may require dismissal. But the issue is even more consequential in the context of damages and determining the overall value of a biometric privacy class action. If continuing BIPA violations constitute separate, independent claims, then the associated statutory negligent damages of $1,000 per violation (or $5,000 if intentional) could begin to compound. And because the law provides for liquidated damages for each violation, a ruling that claims accrue each time a defendant runs afoul of the law’s requirements could expand such liability exponentially.
Companies should pay close attention to how the Illinois Supreme Court decides the Cothron appeal, as the ruling could result in a drastic shift in the biometric privacy legal landscape. In the interim, companies should—with the assistance of experienced biometric privacy counsel—take the time to reassess their compliance with BIPA to ensure they are satisfying the full range of requirements to mitigate potential class action risk.