Shell card case prompts judge to ask: Who cares?

Wed Apr 18, 2012 6:17pm EDT

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(Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell Plc has won a U.S. appeals court's dismissal of a $1 billion lawsuit over the contents of its credit card receipts, in a decision questioning why anyone should care how the oil company acted.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said Shell's printing of the last four digits of account numbers on receipts complied with the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, which allows the printing of as many as the last five digits of a "card number."

While not arguing that Shell put them at greater risk of identity theft, plaintiffs in the class-action case claimed that Shell was printing the wrong digits and that its practice could be deemed unreasonable in light of industry practices.

Because each willful violation of the law could result in damages of $100 or more, penalties could add up fast.

A federal judge in Chicago let the case proceed, but the 7th Circuit reversed that decision and declared Shell the victor.

Writing for a three-judge 7th Circuit panel, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook said the law did not say which digits could appear on card receipts, only that there be no more than five.

"We need not essay a definition of 'card number' as an original matter, because we can't see why anyone should care how the term is defined," he wrote, italicizing the word "care" for emphasis. "A precise definition does not matter as long as the receipt contains too few digits to allow identity theft."

He also said "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."

Martin Oberman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said his clients are considering all options.

"We certainly strongly disagree with the decision," he said. "The district court had it exactly right. The statute is unequivocal that you can only print the last five numbers on a card, and Shell printed the middle four."

Easterbrook said Shell now prints zero digits on receipts.

The case is van Straaten v. Shell Oil Products Co et al, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-8031.

(Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Andre Grenon)

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