WASHINGTON—To date, 35 corporations have pleaded guilty in the ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division into alleged price fixing, bid rigging and market allocation by auto parts manufacturers.
These companies have paid more than $2.5 billion in criminal fines. However, with the multi-district litigation facing them in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the real financial damage may be yet to come.
Since the first filing on Feb. 7, 2012, to the latest on June 5, 2015, a total of 993 documents have been filed so far in the price-fixing MDL before U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battiani.
Suits were filed against 51 companies, of which eight—including such big names as Panasonic, TRW and Autoliv—have settled, according to Hollis Salzman, assistant managing partner in the New York office of law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P.
Salzman is co-lead counsel for the “end payor” settlement class of the MDL—i.e. U.S. citizens who purchased vehicles that contained the parts in question.
There are two other settlement classes in the litigation—one for auto dealers who sold the vehicles, and one for auto makers who purchased the parts directly from the accused companies.
Of the 43 companies that have yet to settle, Salzman said, four are manufacturers of rubber auto parts—Bridgestone Corp., Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. Ltd., Yamashita Rubber Co. Ltd. and Tokai Rubber Industries Inc. In 2014, Tokai Rubber changed its name to Sumitomo Riko Co.
In February 2014, Bridgestone pleaded guilty in Toledo federal district court to one count of conspiracy to fix prices for rubber anti-vibration parts. Bridgestone paid a fine of $425 million.
Three months earlier, Toyo also pleaded guilty to price fixing in rubber anti-vibration parts and agreed to pay a $120 million fine. Yamashita pleaded guilty to price fixing in September 2013 and paid an $11 million fine.
Tokai Rubber and Sumitomo Riko did not appear on a search of the DOJ Antitrust Division website. However, a search of “Tokai Rubber” on the website turned up the November 2012 price fixing guilty plea of an executive of the Ohio subsidiary of a Japanese anti-vibration parts manufacturer based in Saitama, Japan. Sumitomo Riko has a subsidiary in Saitama, TRI Saitama Ltd., which makes and sells rubber products, according to the Sumitomo Riko website.
The reason for there being three settlement classes in the auto parts price fixing MDL instead of one unified class, is simple, according to Eugene A. Spector, founding partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Spector, Roseman, Kodroff & Willis. Spector is interim co-counsel for the direct purchaser plaintiffs in the MDL.
The 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, he said, established the doctrine that only direct purchasers of goods and services may recover damages from antitrust violators. Under Illinois Brick, only the auto makers have standing to sue the auto parts makers for alleged price fixing, he said.
However, many states have antitrust laws that explicitly reject the Illinois Brick ruling and allow indirect purchasers to sue for antitrust damages.
The website for Cuneo Gilbert & La-Duca L.L.P., the Washington law firm that serves as interim co-counsel for the dealer class in the MDL, said it represents plaintiffs in 31 states and the District of Columbia in that action.
To date, the end-payor class in the MDL has obtained $172.1 million in settlements, Salzman said. Jonathan W. Cuneo, founding partner in Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca, said he didn't immediately have an exact figure on settlements for the dealer class, but he estimated it in the $55 million range. The website for Spector, Roseman, Kodroff & Willis said the direct purchaser class won approximately $50 million in its first three settlements.
The next court dates, Salzman said, are status conferences scheduled for Sept. 9, 2015, and Jan. 20, 2016.
Bridgestone and Toyo declined comment on the MDL, saying they do not comment on current litigation.
In its latest fiscal year annual report, however, Toyo said, “in addition to a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. and Canada brought against the company and its subsidiaries, there have been negotiations on damages with some auto manufacturers, which as a result may have an impact on the company's operating results. However, at this stage it is difficult to make a reasonable prediction of the result of such impact.”