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Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Back issues
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Shell Will Avoid Trial Over Receipt Details

CHICAGO (CN) - It would be pointless for a jury to hear a class action over account numbers that Shell Oil used to print on gas sale receipts, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Though lead plaintiff Natalie Van Straaten did not tie the receipts to potential or actual identity theft, she sought damages under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.

To protect against identity theft, the law requires merchants to truncate the digits of a given credit card number on a customer receipt. Specifically, the receipt may not include "more than the last five digits of the card number."

Shell cards are imprinted with nine-digit account number followed by a five-digit card number. Customers who use their Shell cards at the pumps used to receive a receipt that displayed the last four digits of their account number, which appear as the middle digits on the card.

Claiming that this practice willfully violated the credit act, Van Straaten filed a lawsuit for the statutory penalty - between $100 and $1,000 per consumer.

"An award of $100 to everyone who has used a Shell Card at a Shell station would exceed $1 billion, despite the absence of a penny's worth of injury," the 7th Circuit explained last week, ordering the trial court to rule for Shell on remand.

Such an award would be nonsensical, the court found, especially since Shell has changed its practice and no other companies are potentially in violation.

"Thus the substantive question in this litigation will not recur for Shell or anyone else; it need never be answered," Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the three-judge panel.

The judges were largely dismissive of Van Straaten's claims, noting at the outset that they would not define card number "because we can't see why anyone should care how the term is defined."

Neither the credit act, the Federal Trade Commission nor the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau define card number, according to the 10-page decision.

"A precise definition does not matter as long as the receipt contains too few digits to allow identify theft," Easterbrook wrote. "The act does its work by limiting the number of exposed digits, and Shell Oil printed one fewer digit than the act allows."

Judge Richard Cudahy, who joined the majority opinion, wrote separately to further explain "willfulness."

The district court discussed willfulness-recklessness in terms of state-of-mind evidence reflected in Shell's procedure in evaluating its conformity with the statute - an approach which the plaintiff also urged," Cudahy wrote.

"The issue pursued in the case before us is not related to immunity but to whether assigning the matter of statutory compliance to non-lawyers might be evidence of recklessness," he added. "Of course, that question rests with the objective reasonableness of the interpretation, which is demonstrated by the majority opinion, and the credentials of Shell's evaluators are irrelevant."

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