Supplier price-fixing probes will spark years of litigation

DETROIT -- If you are an auto industry litigator, especially in the Detroit area, congratulations on your good fortune in securing perhaps years of top-billing legal work.

The fallout from the price-fixing criminal prosecution of Furukawa Electric Co. has already spawned 10 lawsuits -- including three from dealership groups.

As my colleagues at Crain's Detroit Business have reported, the $29 billion-a-year wire harness segment of the supply chain has been the subject of a comprehensive global antitrust probe, much of it centered in Detroit, where most Tier 1 suppliers maintain a presence.

Three Furukawa executives are probably going to jail, and the company is paying a $200 million fine -- a record antitrust fine for the auto industry. Several other players in this business have been implicated in the resulting civil litigation and from law enforcement raids in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Smelling opportunity

Predictably, America's pack of plaintiffs' lawyers smell a golden opportunity to extract cash out of the industry. And -- unfortunately or fortunately, depending on where you stand -- automakers, dealers, consumers and others all will have rightful claims.

If you can prove you paid more for a vehicle, a component or an aftermarket part because the price was rigged, you have a potential case. Or, as ambulance-chasing lawyers often say in their advertisements, "You may have been injured."

The most interesting part of this emerging legal morass will be what the auto manufacturers will do. One would think these are the real victims with the most compelling claims for damages. But, as of last week, no lawsuits from the manufacturers had been reported.

Don't hold your breath, either.

Ultimate power

You see, purchasing chiefs for automakers hold ultimate power over their suppliers. They can demand immediate reimbursements, price concessions, settlements or any form of punishment they would like from a tainted supplier. Or they can terminate the supplier for cause, and they're probably permitted to do so in the contract.

So if we suddenly hear about certain wire harness suppliers losing longtime contracts to their competitors, well, we'll have a pretty good idea what's really going on.

The automakers won't need to employ corps of trial lawyers to get justice in this case.

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