On March 22, 2010, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed H.B. 1149 into law, making her state the second behind Minnesota (see our post here) to hold businesses and governmental entities responsible to financial institutions for certain costs arising from payment card information breaches. As of July 1, entities that process more than 6 million credit or debit card transactions annually (referred to in PCI parlance as “level 1” merchants) who fail to reasonably safeguard card information can be required to reimburse financial institutions for the costs related to the re-issuance of cards as well as attorneys fees and costs in the event that a security breach involving payment card information is a proximate result. H.B. 1149 also includes a provision to make vendors of card processing software and equipment liable to financial institutions for these costs to the extent such damages are proximately caused by the vendor’s negligence. The amount of such damages, of course, will depend on the particular breach.

H.B. 1149’s safe harbors and exemptions, however, help to minimize the scope and potential impact of the new law. For example, the new law exempts businesses that are certified as compliant with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (“PCI DSS”) at the time of a breach. Most large merchants and card processors are well-acquainted with PCI DSS requirements and have already implemented safeguards aimed at PCI DSS compliance. So the new law should not require Herculean efforts or wholesale changes to covered entities’ cardholder information security programs. However, their liability exposure for losses arising from non-compliance is increased as a result of H.B. 1149.

Entities also are not liable if the payment card information was encrypted at the time of the breach.

The bill signed by Governor Gregoire does not include provisions from earlier versions of the bill that would have, among other things, prohibited covered entities from retaining cardholder data without the express consent of customers and held such entities liable in the event of a breach involving unencrypted cardholder data about more than 5,000 individuals. Likewise, a provision that would have allowed merchants to charge an extra two cents for each payment card transaction in order to cover the cost of insurance against potential liabilities under the law did not survive in the enacted version of the legislation.

With the enactment of H.B. 1149, Washington joins Minnesota as the only state to statutorily impose liability for breach-related costs on negligent merchants, payment card processors and vendors. It also distinguishes itself from the handful of other states in which attempts to enact such laws have failed; states like California, where Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar measure in 2007. Additionally, with the adoption of H.B. 1149, Washington joins Nevada in its quest to incorporate parts of the PCI DSS into its state law. As we previously wrote, Nevada exempts certain entities that are PCI DSS compliant from some of the state’s encryption requirements.