Law360, Los Angeles (January 21, 2015, 8:35 PM ET) — A Florida federal judge on Wednesday gutted a suit in multidistrict litigation accusing State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and other insurance providers of conspiring to manipulate car repair costs to reduce their payments, potentially spelling doom for about 20 additional cases.
In dismissing most of the claims in the instant Florida federal suit without prejudice, U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell decided the auto body shops failed to state a claim, including failing to meet the burden for two claims that alleged Sherman Act violations.
Plaintiffs claimed the insurers utilized business agreements with the shops to exert control over their operations and artificially depress car repair costs.
But Judge Presnell decided on Wednesday that the plaintiffs hadn’t sufficiently detailed the alleged agreements. Moreover, the fact that some of the defendants showed an unwillingness to pay more than State Farm had to pay doesn’t by itself raise Sherman Act concerns, according to the judge.
“It is not illegal for a party to decide it is unwilling to pay a higher hourly rate than its competitors have to pay, and the fact that a number of the defendants made statements to that effect does not tip the scales toward illegality,” Wednesday’s order said.
Judge Presnell also found no viable claim that any defendant refused to allow any of its insureds to obtain a repair from a shop that asked for higher prices, or refused to pay for repairs performed at such a shop, and thus tossed another Sherman Act claim.
In addition to price-fixing and boycotting, plaintiffs accused the insurance companies of breaking various state laws by not sufficiently compensating the body shops for work performed, by illegally steering business away from their respective businesses and by illegally suppressing labor rates within the industry.
While there were slight variations among many of the complaints over certain state-law-based alternative grounds for recovery, the core factual allegations in many of the actions were the same, which led to last year’s consolidation. Thus, Judge Presnell’s Wednesday decision in the instant case may indicate that the similar claims in about 20 other cases in the MDL could fail.
The judge tossed plaintiffs’ quantum meruit, unjust enrichment, tortious interference with business relations and conversion claims without prejudice. He dismissed their quasi-estoppel claim with prejudice.
David L. Yohai of Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP — which is representing 21st Century Centennial Insurance Co., Bristol West Insurance Co. and Farmers Insurance Group — told Law360 on Wednesday that they are pleased with the court’s decision.
“Hopefully, the plaintiffs will see the weakness in their pleadings and not prolong this costly process and case which they clearly do not have the facts to support,” Yohai said.
State Farm Public Affairs Director Phil Supple told Law360 that they are pleased with the ruling and that the company’s lawyers are reviewing the order.
An attorney for the repair shops didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.
The repair shops are represented by John Arthur Eaves Jr. of Eaves Law Firm, among others.
21st Century Centennial Insurance Co., Bristol West Insurance Co. and Farmers Insurance Group are represented by David L. Yohai of Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, among others. State Farm is represented by Michael P. Kenny of Alston & Bird LLP and Michael L. McCluggage of Eimer Stahl LLP, among others. Allstate is represented by Richard L. Fenton of Dentons US LLP, among others.
The case is A&E Auto Body Inc. et al. v. 21st Century Centennial Insurance Co. et al., case number 6:14-cv-00310, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando Division.