Benz case should go to Philly, Justices rule

By Steve Korris | Jun 16, 2011



CHARLESTON –- Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman presided over a suit against Mercedes-Benz when he should have sent it to Philadelphia, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled on June 14.

The Justices bound Benz buyers William and Connie Huston to a class settlement of engine defect claims in federal court for eastern Pennsylvania.

The class definition fit them, and they didn't opt out.

They sued Mercedes-Benz USA and dealer Smith Motor Cars in Kanawha County anyway, asserting claims under state consumer protection law and state lemon law.

They argued that the settlement in Philadelphia didn't provide a specific procedure for reimbursing previous repair costs.

Kaufman agreed but doubted his judgment, so he certified the question to the Justices.

He also asked if the Hustons could pursue state claims that could result in relief beyond what was available in the settlement.

To the first question, the Justices answered that the claims belong in Philadelphia.

Justice Robin Davis wrote that the federal court "undeniably incorporated in its final order all of the necessary elements to permit it to retain continuing jurisdiction over the subject settlement agreement."

She wrote that the federal court possesses jurisdiction over any dispute arising from enforcement of the agreement.

To the second question, the Justices again answered with directions to Philadelphia.

Davis wrote that any decision would be mere academic conjecture in the nature of an advisory opinion.

"Given that this court is not constituted to issue advisory opinions, we are precluded from answering the second certified questions," she wrote.

Harry Bell of Charleston and Jonathan Price of his firm represented Mercedes-Benz and Smith Motor Cars in the case.

Bell said Thursday that he felt "very good" about the Supreme Court's decision.

"It was the right decision, the correct decision," he said.

As to what happens next, Bell said the plaintiffs should recognize they do not have the standing to assert a claim in West Virginia.

"They should go before the court in Pennsylvania and ask for some relief," he said.

Still, he doesn't believe the Hustons have a basis for any additional claims.

"Class actions provide great benefits and they work very well most of the time," Bell explained. "But it's unfortunate when someone, like this couple, takes advantage of a settlement."

Mark Swartz and Mary Jo Swartz of Saint Albans represented the Hustons.

Chief Justice Margaret Workman concurred and reserved the right to file an opinion.

Jessica Karmasek contributed to this report.

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