Baker Botts, Steptoe come under fire over letters to UK cartel claimants

Law firm Baker Botts' office in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Firms warned of "expensive disclosure process" - judge
  • Tribunal says defendants cannot contact class members

(Reuters) - Baker Botts and Steptoe & Johnson’s UK units should not have sent letters to potential class members in a collective lawsuit over a vehicle-shipping cartel, a London tribunal ruled Monday.

The law firms represent two of five shipping companies facing a mass claim after the European Commission found that the companies coordinated prices and allocated customers.

After the Competition Appeal Tribunal gave the case the go-ahead, Baker Botts (UK) and Steptoe & Johnson UK wrote on behalf of four of the five companies to large business purchasers of vehicles, the CAT said in a ruling on Monday.

Judge Marcus Smith said the letters suggested to the potential claimants that “if they did not opt-out [of the lawsuit] they would be likely to become involved in a time-consuming and expensive disclosure process”.

He added: “The [defendants] should not have written the letters to the class members. That was not proper conduct on the part of the [defendants’] representatives.”

The judge ruled that proposed defendants are not allowed to send any communications directly to potential members of the class, even before collective proceedings – roughly equivalent to U.S. class actions – are certified.

Baker Botts and Steptoe & Johnson both declined to comment. Representatives for British consumer champion Mark McLaren, who is bringing the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The collective proceedings – valued at up to 143 million pounds ($171 million) – are being brought against CSAV, K-Line, NYK, MOL and WWL-EUKOR.

MOL alerted the European Commission to the cartel, avoiding a 203 million-euro fine, while the other four were fined a total of 395 million euros.

The companies, with the exception of CVAS, opposed the Competition Appeal Tribunal giving the go-ahead to the collective lawsuit on the grounds that the methodology to demonstrate any loss was flawed.

The case is Mark McLaren Class Representative Ltd v. MOL (Europe Africa) Ltd, 1339/7/7/20.

For McLaren: Sarah Ford KC and Emma Mockford of Brick Court Chambers and Scott+Scott UK

For various defendants: Daniel Piccinin of Brick Court Chambers and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer (UK); Steptoe & Johnson UK; Baker Botts (UK); and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.