By Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau In Print: Friday, January 16, 2009
TALLAHASSEE — Facing a $3.5-billion deficit next year, Florida desperately needs all the money it can get. But millions more will disappear because the state has settled a lawsuit that affects millions of motorists.
The Legislature will spend $10.4-million to settle a class action lawsuit over allegations that the state illegally sold drivers’ personal information to marketing firms over a four-year period in violation of a federal law barring the practice. The state made $27-million each year on the deal, according to the lawsuit.
The settlement to drivers?
Drivers who held a license, car registration or state-issued ID from June 1, 2000, through Sept. 30, 2004, will get a one-time credit of $1 when they register or renew a registration between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010.
“Just one dollar?” Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, asked in a committee hearing on the settlement.
The four South Florida motorists who sued will get $3,000 each, and five law firms that pursued the case for more than six years will divide $2.85-million in legal fees, which is separate from credits paid to consumers.
Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet approved the agreement in August, but the Legislature has to appropriate the money. The Senate Transportation Committee was briefed on the settlement Wednesday.
The personal information that was sold includes a driver’s photo, Social Security number, driver ID number, name, address, phone number and medical condition.
The preliminary settlement requires the state motor vehicle agency to post on its Web site a system to obtain names of the mass marketers that bought the personal information, as well as a reference on license and registration forms on state and federal disclosure laws.
The state formally denied any wrongdoing.
“No one’s hurt, no one’s injured, and we’re paying $10-million?” asked Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami.
“It’s $10-million or the potential is in the billions,” replied Steven Fielder, a lobbyist for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The state’s maximum liability was estimated at $39-million, based on a $2,500 penalty for each violation of the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.
Congress in 1999 amended the law to prohibit states from providing drivers’ personal information unless the state had drivers’ permission to do so.
But Florida, the lawsuit alleged, continued to market the data anyway. The Legislature passed a law in 2004 ending the practice.
Anyone affected by the settlement has until March 16 to file an objection with the court in Miami. The case is before U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez
Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, said it looks to him as though consumers should have gotten more.
“The victim really doesn’t benefit very much, and the attorneys make out on attorneys’ fees.”