LOS ANGELES – A jury has awarded $64,000 to the first in a long line of plaintiffs in lemon law cases against Ford Motor Co. over allegedly defective transmissions. In multi district litigation consolidated at the Central District of California, nearly 900 additional Ford owners have alleged defects in their vehicles’ DPS6 PowerShift transmissions.
The verdict for plaintiff Mark Pedante’s particular case regarding the transmission of his 2013 Focus was handed down Nov. 14, representing damages under the Song Beverly Act, also known as the California lemon law.
However, the $64,000 verdict could have been much larger as District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. struck fraud-based claims just days before trial started. In the end, the jury’s award was significantly less than what Ford had originally offered the plaintiff.
After denying Pedante’s request for a repurchase while on his vehicle’s fourth clutch, Ford offered him a $75,000 settlement. Pedante declined the offer and took the automaker to court, and once the fraud claim was cut from the case, the $75,000 mark was out of reach.
A previous verdict from a similar case involving a fraud claim won the plaintiff more than $700,000 – Pedante and his legal team, led by the Knight Law Group and Kiesel Law LLP, had eyed a similar outcome.
In what was the first of around 900 plaintiffs within this litigation group who opted out of the settlement, both Ford and plaintiff attorneys now have a case to look at that may have established the tone for future outcomes with Ford seemingly having the upper hand.
“He (Birotte Jr.) struck the fraud claims … so that’s not that they dropped them, he struck them, which is worse because that means if he did it in one case you can image he’s going to do that in other cases,” said Brian Kabateck, founding and managing partner of Kabateck LLP in Los Angeles.
“(He is a) very smart judge; an Obama appointee so he’s not exactly corporate America friendly,” said Kabateck. “And as somebody who understands the issues here I wouldn’t be very happy if I was the plaintiff’s lawyer and I lost my fraud claim and ended up with less than the defendant offered me – being realistic, that’s a bad day at the office.”
Despite Pedante not getting the payday that he may have anticipated, his attorneys will most likely still seek a larger payout in what has become a common theme among lemon law cases. Some lawyers are netting large fees by exaggerating hours worked and calculating those numbers by way of the lodestar multiplier. While not all judges are buying the final numbers, some are.
“I think the problem is that the corporations don’t like the attorney fee provision and the judge is very good at determining what’s fair attorney fees," Kabateck said. "And we determine in California that when you’re bringing a lemon law case on a car you’re entitled to attorney fees if the auto manufacturer doesn’t make right on it.”
Due to this new wave of massive attorney fee proposals and payouts, some believe that change is needed in order to restore the law’s integrity and original intention, as one legal expert recently told The Northern California Record.
“… this law has been hijacked by certain abusive plaintiffs’ attorneys who are exploiting this system by continually delaying resolutions in order to extract huge legal fees,” said Kyla Christoffersen-Powell, president and CEO of the Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC). “Reforms are needed to address these abuses, which undermine the law’s intent - ensuring consumers have a clear, direct path to the auto manufacturer to get their vehicles repaired, replaced or repurchased quickly and fairly.”
In the last six years, more than 30,000 complaints have been filed against the auto industry, and each year since 2015 the number has grown. More than 8,000 were filed in 2018, and this year’s filings are on pace to surpass last year's mark.
Ford Motor Co. has been racked with the most lemon law suits and since 2015 has been hit with at least 8,791. General Motors has seen the second most in that timeframe with at least 5,612.
The Knight Law Group stands out as the most prolific filer of Song-Beverly Act suits in California. More than 550 different law firms have filed suits throughout the state.