A California judge has rejected Volkswagen’s attempt to require a Jetta Hybrid owner’s putative class action lawsuit to go to arbitration. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle ruled that VW can’t enforce an arbitration agreement the owner signed with the dealership that sold him his car. Judge Berle said he would not grant Volkswagen Group of America Inc.’s motion to compel individual arbitration of named Plaintiff Peter Bryan Burra’s lawsuit, which claimed model year 2013 Jetta Hybrids have defective braking systems.
VW had argued that Burra agreed to an arbitration clause when he signed his sales contract with Los Angeles dealership Volkswagen of Van Nuys, and that the clause applies to “any claim or dispute” which “arises or relates to” his buying the Jetta – which includes his current product liability claims. Although VW was itself not a signatory to that purchase agreement, the automaker argued that the clause specifically stated that it applied to third parties who didn’t sign the agreement, but whose claims or disputes were covered by the agreement. VW also argued that because Burra’s own suit relies on the contract by claiming the defective brakes violated what he was promised when he purchased the vehicle, Volkswagen can also rely on the contract.
Judge Berle correctly rejected VW’s contentions and denied the automaker’s motion for arbitration, saying the Plaintiff’s claims are not “intertwined” with the contract, which specifically avows that it is not a warranty for defective vehicle problems, and that given how much influence VW has over its dealerships, it must bear the responsibility for the ambiguous contract. Judge Berle stated: “If the manufacturer desired to be explicitly encompassed by arbitration clause, it could have done that. The contact does not do that.”
Burra filed suit in August 2015, contending that the 2013 Jetta Hybrid, like the Toyota Prius and other hybrid vehicles, contains a “regenerative braking system” that converts the kinetic energy generated by a slowing or stopping car into electricity to be used in the vehicle’s hybrid motor system, improving fuel efficiency and helping the brakes to last longer. The Jetta Hybrid also contains a conventional braking system.
Burra alleged he bought the Jetta due to its reputation for safety, but found that the regenerative braking system performs “in an unpredictable manner” making it hard to impossible for drivers to accurately predict how much distance and time they’ll need to safely come to a stop. Burra alleged that as a result of this unpredictability, he rear-ended other drivers twice, once in August 2013 and once in June 2015.
Burra is represented by Robert L. Starr of the Law Offices of Robert L. Starr APC and Stephen M. Harris of the Law Offices of Stephen M. Harris APC. The case is Peter Bryan Burra v. Volkswagen of America Inc. in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles.