Several major import-vehicle shippers, which together are said to command 70 percent of the global car-shipping market, face allegations of price fixing in a civil lawsuit filed in a U.S. court.
The overseas shippers are accused of taking part in a scheme to "fix, raise, maintain and/or stabilize prices" that lasted at least five years, according to the May 24 complaint, which was filed by law firm Susman Godfrey in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla.
The companies sought to suppress and eliminate competition in the car-shipping market, the complaint says. The civil lawsuit follows investigations into shipping companies' pricing practices by government agencies in Europe, Japan, the United States and elsewhere.
Consumers ultimately paid
Payments to the companies, which ship new vehicles to the United States from overseas factories, range between $600 million and $800 million annually, according to the complaint.
The companies fixed shipping prices and inflated the charges, and those higher fees were then passed down from the automakers and dealerships to the consumer, said Warren Burns, lead attorney in the case. The suit is seeking class-action status.
Plaintiffs had overseas-built vehicles shipped to the United States. They were listed as Kenneth A. Nelson of Florida; Rita Diel-Brown of Oklahoma; and Eugene Thomas Goessling and Pamela E. Goessling of Missouri.
Companies named in the complaint include: Nissan Motor Car Carrier Co.; Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, Wallenius Lines; Nippon Yusen K.K. and NYK Line Inc.
Nippon Yusen, of Tokyo, is the world's biggest owner of car-carrying vessels, according to Bloomberg.
'We are aware'
"I can confirm that we are aware of the civil class-action lawsuit that has been filed against a number of car carriers, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics included," Anna Larsson, a spokeswoman for the shipping company's logistics arm, wrote in an e-mail. "We are also aware that when regulatory investigations of an industry have been started in the USA, it is basically routine that civil class actions follow."
A spokesman for the International Chamber of Shipping, a trade association that represents merchant ship operators, said it is not involved in the case and does not comment on ongoing lawsuits.
Burns said in an interview that the companies likely resorted to fixing because of declining business stemming from the onset of global recession in 2008 and rising oil prices.
From 2008 to 2012, average shipping service prices increased from around $350 per vehicle to about $410, according to documents filed with the suit. Burns said not all of the increase was necessarily due to potentially illegal activity.
Raids in Tokyo, Europe
Competition authorities in the United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have investigated the industry's pricing activities, Bloomberg has reported.
In September 2012, Japan's Fair Trade Commission and the European Commission executed coordinated raids at the Tokyo and European offices of several of the companies being sued, court documents show. Burns said the raids wouldn't have been possible without collaboration between the countries' authorities.
Said Burns: "They're busting down on these conspiracies because they know they impact consumers."
Adam Rubenfire and Hans Greimel contributed to this report.
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