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Nueces County, Texas, Judge Hector De Pena Jr. doesn’t drive a car produced by DaimlerChrysler Corp. So when his colleague Judge Marisela Saldana recused herself last year from DaimlerChrysler litigation because she drove a Jeep Cherokee — a car installed with seat belts that were the subject of the court fight — De Pena was revved up and ready to go. The defense lawyers for DaimlerChrysler may now wish De Pena did drive one of their company’s cars instead of his Chevy and Buick. That’s because on July 3 the judge granted nationwide class action status in a suit against DaimlerChrysler on behalf of as many as 14 million owners of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles that have had a particular make of seat belt, known as a Gen3, installed since 1993. “I was applying Texas law to the facts,” De Pena says about his ruling. In his eight-page order, the judge wrote that the class action status was more appropriate because “it would be grossly inefficient, exorbitantly costly, a waste of judicial resources, and an invitation for conflicting results to require each class member to repetitively litigate the common issues presented in this cause.” The judge concedes that the plaintiffs have not necessarily met the federal standards required for class action status — their request included only economic damages, not personal-injury claims. But De Pena says he believes Texas law differs from federal law in an important way: Economic damages alone are enough under Texas law to merit class certification. “Texas is rather unique in this area,” De Pena says. The defense lawyers representing DaimlerChrysler, however, contend that the judge’s reasoning and order are erroneous. “Our general comment is that we are disappointed. We believe the ruling is inconsistent with Texas law,” says Steve Hantler, an assistant general counsel for Dearborn, Mich.-based DaimlerChrysler. Hantler tapped Bryan Cave partner Kathy Wisniewski of St. Louis and Bracewell & Patterson partner Roberta J. Hegland of Houston to represent the company in the case, Bill Inman, David Castro and John Wilkins, et al. v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., et al., in Nueces County Court of Law No. 2. Specifically, Hantler argues that De Pena’s order was flawed because the judge failed to require the plaintiffs to produce a trial plan and do a comprehensive analysis on the variations in state laws regarding the subject of the litigation. Hantler also alleges the judge signed and delivered the order within an hour of receiving a brief from the plaintiffs’ lawyers but without giving the defense team an opportunity to respond. De Pena counters, “We’d been playing this game of tennis back and forth for some period of time. It was just coincidental that I received the briefing before I issued the order. I had been doing a little research on my own and the order was not based on that last briefing.” Hantler also dismisses the substantive allegations made by the plaintiffs, arguing the seat belts, which still are being installed in the manufacturers’ vehicles, are safe. “This is frankly a lawsuit to generate attorneys’ fees,” Hantler says. “How the judge could say it complies with Texas law and not with federal law is a question to me.” But for William “Billy” Edwards III, of the Edwards Firm in Corpus Christi, Texas, De Pena’s decision came as another step forward in Edwards’ lengthy pursuit of DaimlerChrysler and the company’s seat belts. That pursuit started in 2000 when he took a case brought by the widow of Bart Moran, a Corpus Christi man killed in a low-speed collision in December 1996 while driving a 1997 Dodge Caravan. A jury in Nueces County Judge Robert Vargas’ courtroom determined that Moran’s seat belt, a Gen3, unlatched during the crash and was in part responsible for his death. The jury awarded $6.7 million; however, the case, AlliedSignal Inc. and DaimlerChrysler v. Yvonne Moran, et al., is on appeal in the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi. In Inman, Edwards seeks replacement of Gen3 belt buckles on about 14 million Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles made since 1993. He also is asking for reimbursement for inconveniences that may be caused during the replacements, up to $500 per owner. “It is our contention that this involves every one of these vehicles. Our goal is to get Chrysler to replace these seat belts,” Edwards says. Edwards says he has not yet calculated the total costs of his expenses in the DaimlerChrysler litigation. He serves as co-counsel in related cases in Ohio, Massachusetts, Georgia, Nevada and California. “Most of what I do is automotive plaintiff liability,” Edwards says. “It sounds clich�, but that is what I do. My docket is just full of defective automobiles.”

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