Thursday, June 23, 2016

Plum House IV, Inc. v. Wells Fargo Merchant Services, LLC (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Filed: January 29, 2016

Opinion by: Catherine Blake

Holding: Under Maryland’s "economic loss rule" courts have limited remedies if the loss is purely economic and the parties were engaged in arms-length commercial bargaining.

Facts: Plaintiff operated a restaurant that allowed customers to pay with American Express Credit Cards. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant, a merchant payment card processor, mixed up the customer identification number and this mistake resulted in $349,395.14 being routed incorrectly to John Doe/ ABC Co. Plaintiff sued Defendant, American Express, and John Doe/ABC Co. to recover payments made by customer’s credit cards.

Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligence and breach of contract. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Parties agreed, per the terms of the contract, to apply NY law for the breach claim. The Court applied the Erie doctrine, choice of law, and outcome determinative test. Maryland law controlled the negligence claim and NY law controlled the breach of contract claim.

Analysis: The Court relied on Jacques v. First Nat'l Bank of Md., to determine if a duty exists. The Jacques test balances the nature of the harm that is likely to result from a failure to exercise due care and the nature of the relationship between the parties. When the failure to exercise due care creates only a risk of economic loss courts generally require an intimate nexus between the parties to impose tort liability. Plaintiff argued that, like in Jacques, it had a special relationship with Defendant which trumps the economic loss rule.

A special relationship exists when: (i) the business is affected with the public interest; (ii) the plaintiff is an individual consumer who is particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the other parties' exercise of due care; (iii) there is a disparity in strength of bargaining position; (iv) and one party more sophisticated than the other.

The Court disagreed. Specifically, it distinguished this matter from Jacques in two ways. First, Defendant in this matter is a merchant payment card processor, not a bank. Second, and more importantly, Jacques centered upon the fiduciary relationship a bank has to the individual clients. The Defendant conducts a sophisticated commercial enterprise with the same bargaining power as the Plaintiff. The Court ruled that a credit card payment processor does not have the same fiduciary relationship to a vendor that a bank has to individual consumers.

The Court determined that the economic loss doctrine applies for the negligence claim and granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss the negligence claim.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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