TOKYO -- U.S. auto dealers and consumers are suing parts makers, saying they paid more for their vehicles because of price-fixing by the suppliers.
The civil suits follow numerous criminal cases filed by the federal government over price-fixing. Those resulted in corporate fines and prison time for managers at the accused suppliers. The civil suits could be exponentially more costly to the suppliers in question.
In a procedural move in December, many of the plaintiffs consolidated their separate cases into two suits -- one each for dealerships and consumers -- with their legal focus centered on Japan's largest automotive supplier: Denso Corp.
It spells more bad news for many of the 23 defendants. If the cases go to trial and a jury agrees with the plaintiffs, the suppliers could face penalties up to triple the actual damages.
What's more, because numerous suppliers are being wrapped into the same suits as alleged co-conspirators, they would be liable not only for the damages caused by their own price fixing but also for the damages of the other suppliers, lawyers said.
That could dramatically ratchet up their payouts.
Denso was targeted as the ringleader of a wider conspiracy because of its size and reach. It does business with dozens of other suppliers and auto manufacturers, plaintiff lawyers said.
"Denso is the center of the conspiratorial conduct," said Steven Williams, an attorney at the Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy law firm outside San Francisco who represents consumer plaintiffs.
"Denso was sufficiently big and powerful that even those companies that might say "We prefer not to do this' could be forced to because Denso could then take retribution on the company that refused to cooperate," Williams said.
Denso spokesperson Yu Matsuda said the company could not comment on pending legal matters.