Justice delayed is justice denied, and this month, almost 300 dealers whose franchises were summarily rejected during Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy will finally get their day in court.
The rejected dealers — who Chrysler watchers know collectively by the original, gut-wrenching number of the culling, "The 789" — are scheduled to begin what is expected to be up to a two-month trial in Washington, D.C., next week. The plaintiff dealers are suing the federal government, alleging it wrongly forced the rejection of their Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep franchises under Chrysler's bankruptcy in an effort to strengthen the crippled automaker's dealer network if and when it emerged with Fiat S.p.A. in control.
And just as a decade ago, when Chrysler's wash through bankruptcy was a test case mainly to see if much larger General Motors could also emerge on the other side, so too is this case an experiment to see if the U.S. government can be held responsible for the larger number of General Motors franchisees culled in its bankruptcy.
Neither the timing of the trial nor the choice of defendant are likely to deliver the type of justice that rejected Chrysler dealers most crave: a recognition that they were wronged, that their employees and families were unjustly harmed financially, and an explanation — from someone who knew — of why their franchises were targeted in the culling while others, with arguably greater operational issues, escaped.
At issue instead is a measurement of monetary loss and a question of whether the government — in its role at the time as the financier of last resort for the bankrupted Chrysler and General Motors — can be held financially responsible for the unprecedented actions taken to save both automakers from dissolution and the broader economy from deep depression. And just as in their respective bankruptcy cases, the circumstances surrounding the terminated GM dealers are slightly different, and are likely to result in other questions that will have to be decided in a courtroom.
The traumatic events that played out in this industry a decade ago left a substantial mark on our collective psyche, one that continues to shape the actions of dealers, suppliers and automakers. But for those who did not survive the tumult, the burden is more than just psychological.
And their collective day in court is long overdue.