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The Defense Department has been hit by a $4.9 billion class action lawsuit filed on behalf of four military family members and the 4.9 million Tricare beneficiaries whose personal information was contained on tapes stolen from a car in San Antonio in September.
The suit alleges that Tricare "intentionally, willfully and recklessly violated" the privacy rights of the plaintiffs by failing to take precautions to protect their personal information, including Social Security numbers, clinical notes and lab results.
The information disappeared Sept. 13 when backup tapes were stolen from the automobile of an employee of Science Applications International Corp., a defense contractor responsible for transporting them to a facility where they were to be secured.
The suit seeks $1,000 in damages for each of the 4.9 million Tricare beneficiaries whose information was stolen, including named plaintiffs Virginia Gaffney of Hampton, Va., and her two children, and Adrienne Taylor of Glendale, Ariz.
In the suit, Gaffney is described as the spouse of a war veteran who has been a Tricare beneficiary since 1992 and lived in two states that may have been affected by the data loss, Florida and Alabama; Taylor is an Air Force veteran and military spouse who has undergone medical procedures in San Antonio.
Neither named plaintiff knows whether their information was among the information stolen.
"Based on what's been released, it's likely, but no one knows. And isn't that ridiculous, after a month, no one knows if their information was stolen?" said Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, an attorney for the New York-based law firm Meiselman, Denlea, Packman, Carton and Eberz, one of two firms involved in the case.
Both Tricare and SAIC estimated that the risk of the data being used for criminal intent was low because the thief needed to possess an in-depth understanding of SAIC's hardware and software as well as knowledge of data interpretation, according to a Tricare release.
But the suit contends the data can be easily retrieved with knowledge of a person's name or an identifying symbol or number, such as a phone number.
"It doesn't make us happy to bring this lawsuit. It's an egregious thing that never should have happened," Frei-Pearson said.
The tapes contained information for patients in 10 states who were seen at military treatment facilities in San Antonio from 1992 to Sept. 7, 2011, and those who filled prescriptions or had lab tests processed at San Antonio-area military health facilities during the same period.
Shortly after news of the data loss hit the streets, attorney groups began soliciting for beneficiaries who may have been "harmed" by the breach.
The individuals whose information was on the tapes have yet to be notified. Tricare is now sending letters to the individuals and has said it has not received feedback that any of the information has been misused.
In the suit, Taylor contends she incurred economic loss because she purchased credit monitoring services to ensure that her account information was safe. She also "suffered emotional upset as the result of the invasion of her privacy," according to the court filing.
The suit also asks the court to direct Tricare to provide free credit monitoring services for class members in addition to the $1,000 in damages, an additional cost that, if a judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, would be borne by U.S. taxpayers.
Both Tricare and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are named in the suit. SAIC is not named as a defendant.
A Tricare official said the military health care agency does not comment on pending litigation.