Theoretical Injury Won’t Hack It: Illinois Federal Court Dismisses Jeep Drivers’ Class Action for Lack of Standing
An Illinois federal judge dismissed a trio of certified putative class actions involving 220,000 Jeep Cherokee drivers from Missouri, Michigan, and Illinois for lack of standing. The decision underscored a key principle: Theoretical injury is not enough for purposes of standing.
In Flynn, et al. v. FCA US LLC, et al., Case No. 15-cv-855, the plaintiffs alleged that defendants FCA US LLC and Harman International Industries Inc. installed defective “UConnect” infotainment systems in Jeep Cherokees and other vehicles which could be hacked by outsiders and subsequently remotely controlled. The class actions arose from a single 2015 hack of the UConnect system executed by two highly skilled researchers in a controlled experiment, as reported by Wired magazine. None of the other “1.2 million subject vehicles with the purported defects” had been hacked.
In response to a Motion to Dismiss by defendants, U.S. District Judge Staci M. Yandle held the plaintiffs lacked standing because they had “not suffered any injury in fact.” In her analysis, what the plaintiffs did not allege was equally important to what they did allege. Plaintiffs did not allege (1) that their UConnect systems did not work, (2) that they experienced problems with the systems, (3) that they were unwilling to drive their vehicles as a result of the systems, or (4) that they had sold or traded their vehicles at a loss due to issues with the UConnect systems. Rather, the plaintiffs simply alleged that the UConnect infotainment systems could have been “safer” and were theoretically vulnerable to hacking.
The court held that this alleged defect was, at best, “conclusory and unsupported.” Although the plaintiffs’ expert opined that the UConnect systems were defective because they could have been made “safer” by making certain cybersecurity-related technological alternations, such as adding trust anchors or intrusion detection functions, this was insufficient to establish injury. The court noted, “theoretically, any product can be made safer or better – there are no foolproof products” and “the fact that the UConnect has vulnerabilities and could have been made safer does not make it defective when no vehicles have ever manifested the alleged defect.”
The court also held there was “no demonstrable effect on the market for Plaintiffs’ vehicles” based on “documented recalls, declining Kelley Bluebook values, or a risk so immediate that they were forced to replace or discontinue using their vehicles,” thereby incurring out-of-pocket damages.
The court underscored that a “‘concrete’ injury must be ‘de facto’; that is, it must actually exist.” Here, the plaintiffs had “not suffered any injury in fact” because they “received what they bargained for – vehicles equipped with infotainment services” and they did “not plausibly allege that they were financially harmed by virtue of their vehicles purchases. Although the court noted it did not “arrive at [this] conclusion lightly,” given the lengthy procedural history in the litigation, the court granted the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.
Flynn reinforces that plaintiffs alleging only theoretical injury will lose on standing grounds — even if the theory was reported by Wired magazine.