Friday, April 22, 2016

How US law sometimes helps German consumers

The American legal system is legendary everywhere on the planet where people have TVs and books. From Perry Mason to OJ Simpson, from judges in Hollywood Westerns to divorce litigation in Kramer vs. Kramer, from tortured memos of John Yoo to Supreme Court judges, Europeans have seen them or read about them.
Don't fault Europeans for thinking that almost all criminal cases in the US are resolved by jury trial - blame Hollywood and TV for that.

Extradition requests by the US to get its hands on some alleged evildoer are also popular, especially when the expected sentence in the US is measured in multiple decades as opposed to a few years in the respective European country.

Of course, everyone around here has heard of cases like McDonald's piping hot coffee, and more recently, the more curious folks even found out about civil lawsuits in the area of "The US versus Some Money". For the latter, blame John Oliver's HBO show.

What really gets Europeans, though, are the incredible awards for damages handed out by US courts. A million dollars here, a handful of millions there, the figures are mindboggling to EU citizens.

Only weeks ago, an American court awarded plaintiffs of the 9/11 attacks a cool 2 billion dollars in a case they had brought against, of all countries, Iran for its alleged role in the terror plot.

German citizens have taken note of settlements for millions of dollars in cases where US police killed yet another unarmed harmless black guy. The interest of German audiences concerns the human side of such cases but also the money.

Because you simply do not get that kind of damages in Germany. German companies and the German government are absolutely stingy when it comes to compensating individuals for intentional or unintentional wrong. One hundred thousand Euros after many years of court decisions and appeals is still considered an unbelievable jackpot around here.

Seven years innocently in a mental hospital got one person 50 000 Euros, of which the government will deduct a big chunk for, get that, food and board.

Loss of life?

50 K is what Lufthansa subsidiary Germanwings eventually offered each family after the co-pilot smashed almost 150 people to pieces in the French mountains.

That was considered generous. Lawyers for the families soon found a tangible link to the US needed to sue the airline in an American court: Lufthansa pilots do most of their training in the United States.
This quickly got the attention of the firm, and we will see how the case moves forward.

The Volkswagen (VW) emissions cheating case is a newer example. After it emerged that the company had installed cheat software to beat US emissions tests, the scandal spread to Europe and to the company's homeland of Germany.

Incensed German customers demanded financial compensation - which was flat out refused. A few went to court, and were turned back.

With lenient oversight, customers were told, yes, we'll fix the car when we get to it, shouldn't take much more than a year or so.

Had the VW scandal been limited to Europe, this would have been the end of the road for its customers.

However, news of a settlement with US authorities was made public a couple of days ago. While the figure has not been officially confirmed yet, German media are reporting that each affected US customer will get a payout of 5 000 dollars.

It will be next to impossible for VW to justify paying damages to Americans and continue to refuse to do so for its German customers.

These are two high profile cases, and we do not know for certain if other settlements are made quietly under the radar when a German individual or company brings up a credible threat to sue in the US instead of Germany.

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