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June 19, 2011

Chet Pleban Files a Lawsuit on Behalf of Car Dealership Against Chrysler Executives

St. Louis Post Dispatch

A Wentzville auto dealer filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that several of Chrysler’s executives and employees conspired to “drive the dealership out of business.”

Century Motor Corp., which sold new Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep vehicles, claims the group worked to make sure the dealership was among hundreds of dealers nationwide that were cut by the automaker, according to the suit filed in St. Charles County Circuit Court.

Last month, Chrysler announced it would eliminate 789 dealers, including Century, from its operations. The action was approved by a bankruptcy judge this week.

Century claims there was no business rationale for including it on the termination list. The action was a retaliation for previous legal battles with the automaker, according to the dealership.

“We’ve been profitable. We’ve been a five-star dealer since the start of the program,” said Kevin Mock, Century’s sales manager.

The lawsuit does not name Chrysler as a defendant, but it does name former Chief Executive Bob Nardelli, former President Tom LaSorda, sales chief Steven Landry and nine other employees. One of those is Jim Press, who is now deputy chief executive of the restructured Chrysler Group LLC.

Century Motor seeks punitive and compensatory damages. “There has to be some accountability,” said Century’s lawyer, Chet Pleban of Pleban & Associates LLC in Richmond Heights.

Mike Palese, a Chrysler spokesman for legal matters, said he couldn’t comment on behalf of the individuals. Katie Hepler, another company representative, said the executives were “not doing interviews on any issue.”

In Wednesday’s filing, Century outlined its two previous lawsuits against Chrysler. The first was in 2004, after the automaker “arbitrarily” doubled Century’s minimum monthly sales quota and then threatened the dealership when it could not meet those goals. Century and Chrysler reached a settlement.

Century said it filed another suit in 2006 for a price discounting program but then dismissed its claims last year because the program was discontinued.

Century claims in its latest lawsuit that based on the previous legal skirmishes, Chrysler executives and employees encouraged the automaker to add another dealership in O’Fallon, Mo., in October 2007 as a way to put Century out of business. Eventually, the executives and employees placed the dealership on the termination list, according to the suit. The dealership’s last day as a Chrysler Dodge Jeep franchise was Tuesday.

Mock said Century would stay open as a used-vehicle center that also offers repair and maintenance.

Without reading the case, University of Michigan law professor John Pottow said it would be tough for Century to win.

“What is the motive for individual executives to put a dealer in Missouri out of business?” said Pottow, an expert in bankruptcy and commercial law.

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