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Meat-ing Halfway

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Only in Pittsburgh could you get French fries on top of your legal settlement. And for some card-swiping customers of Primanti Brothers' South Side location, the proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit is something to chew on.

Between July 28, 2008 and Feb. 19, 2010, roughly 49,000 receipts printed at the restaurant's East Carson Street location contained customers' debit- and credit-card expiration dates. While the card numbers themselves were not disclosed on the receipts, even printing expiration dates violates regulations established by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA).

The practice drew the attention of Cleveland resident Nora Hoxha, who ate at the restaurant in January and filed the suit on behalf of customers the following month. She did so, legal filings claim, "to protect [herself] and others similarly situated against identity theft and credit card and debit card fraud."

Attorneys in the dispute have struck a proposed deal to resolve the matter: Customers whose expiration dates were printed are entitled to a free menu item and side dish at any Primanti Brothers location. There's a catch, however: By accepting the food offer, you'll be giving up the right to sue the local restaurant chain later should you later be the victim of identity theft.

A district court hearing in March will approve or deny the settlement, which also requires Primanti Brothers to pay Hoxha $3,500, cover up to $62,000 of her attorney fees and donate $25,000 to the Carnegie Museums.

"It was a fair and reasonable settlement for all involved," says Brian Simmons, who is representing the restaurant, and has handled similar cases in the past. Still, he adds, "People have the option of opting out of the settlement" and pursuing litigation on their own.

Hoxha did not respond to requests for comment, but her lawsuit doesn't allege any monetary loss from the incident. In fact, neither Simmons nor Hoxha's attorney, Nicole Fiorelli, can cite an example where plaintiffs in similar suits did end up as victims of identity theft.

Fiorelli says the proposed deal is "better than a number of [FACTA] settlements" she came across in research, adding that she is happy "it was resolved relatively quickly."

By law, plaintiffs can recover additional cash rewards if the violation is intentional. But Fiorelli says proving intent can be difficult, which is why most FACTA lawsuits result in voucher settlements.

Primanti Brothers owner Jim Patrinos attributes the receipt snafu to a sales system that was programmed by an outside vendor. He says he was unaware of the problem until a reporter called him when Hoxha filed her lawsuit.

"Within 20 minutes, we had it fixed," Patrinos says. "It was a technicality. ... [But] you can't argue that [the expiration date] wasn't on there."

None of Primanti Brothers' other locations printed expiration dates, he says. He's currently talking to the company that set up the credit-card payment system to see whether it will absorb some of the costs.

Patrinos says it's hard to see how printing an expiration date poses any risk for customers. "If the [card] number was on there, sure." (FACTA permits only five digits of the number to be printed, a requirement all Primanti Brothers locations comply with.)

"I've never faced anything like this," Patrinos says. He initially wanted to fight the suit in court, he adds, but "it would have been a really long battle. And, unfortunately, it's cheaper to settle."

Patrinos could owe up to $90,500, depending on the amount of Hoxha's attorney fees. And that doesn't include the potential revenue loss from giving free meals to customers who accept the settlement. Patrinos says he can't estimate how many people will take the vouchers -- or how many separate customers comprised the 49,000 transactions at issue in the dispute. To notify customers, Primanti Brothers advertised the settlement in City Paper and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and also posted a notification in the restaurant.

"I think we've gotten two vouchers back so far," Patrinos says.

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