Kobe Steel Ltd.’s legal problems are just beginning in wake of the company’s disclosure that it falsified data for years about the durability of aluminum and copper used in airplanes, trains and vehicles.
The Japanese company, which supplies many of that country’s top automakers, is likely to be targeted by investors, customers, consumers and regulators—both in its home country and in the U.S.—as the fallout continues from its admission this week, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers and legal experts.
The company’s admission Sept. 8 that it may have provided substandard metals to more than 200 manufacturers spurred a flurry of internal probes by customers including Toyota, Honda and Subaru into whether they had problem parts. Kobe Steel’s share price plunged 36% and the cost to insure its debt against default soared since the news unfolded.
“I expect a wave of litigation as soon as people figure out what’s happened, who’s impacted and the company continues to admit things,” said Samuel Rudman, a partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd. Rudman said his firm may pursue claims against the company on behalf of “the whole gamut” of those affected.
Kobe Steel, one of Japan’s oldest manufacturers, said it failed to comply with product specifications that it had promised customers. Though it initially said the issue was limited to certain aluminum and copper components that shipped from Sept. 1, 2016, to Aug. 31, a company executive later said the fabrication of data was systematic and dated back as long as a decade.
Kobe hasn’t received “any lawsuits from anyone,’’ Gary Tsuchida, company spokesman, said in an email Wednesday. “We are currently working together with our customers to determine whether the aluminum and copper products we supplied them have any problems concerning quality.
“We have also received inquiries from the public. Some asked for more information while others were angry,” Tsuchida said. “Investors have contacted us following up on press reports and for explanations concerning this issue.”
The disclosure is the latest in a series of black eyes for the Japanese auto manufacturing sector, following on the heels of massive scandals over Takata Corp.’s exploding airbags and defects in Toyota vehicles. The legal ramifications for Kobe Steel may resemble those that befell Takata and Volkswagen, following disclosures that the automaker cheated on diesel emission standards, according to some experts.
“The Japanese auto industry has had a rough run,” said Matthew L. Tuccillo, a lawyer with Pomerantz who represents investors in securities cases. For Kobe Steel in particular, the impact from 10 years’ worth of falsified data could be a “rough hit” for the company, he said.
Because it is based in Japan, much of the legal or regulatory actions resulting from the disclosure may be focused overseas, according to the legal experts. However, cases would be pursued in U.S. federal or state courts against any U.S.-based operating units, following a pattern established in litigation over Takata’s and VW’s disclosures, they said. General Motors and Ford Motor are two of Kobe Steel’s biggest customers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
"There will be investor suits, suits by customers, maybe product defect suits, but we don’t know yet,’’ said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. The latter may depend on whether a connection is established between flawed metals and injuries or deaths, Tobias said.
Bigger cases will likely emerge as problems resulting from sales of any substandard metal come to light, the experts said.
“They are going to face deep liability, wherever the stock trades,” Tuccillo said. “I would venture to guess that the revelations are going to keep coming. It seems like a tip-of-the-iceberg-type thing.”
VW admitted in September 2015 that about 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide were outfitted with so-called defeat devices to cheat emissions testing. That set off hundreds of lawsuits in the U.S. and investigations by prosecutors and regulators in multiple countries. Costs, including settlements, have reached $30 billion.
Litigation over Takata’s air bags took more time, as the first product defect claims against the company were settled quietly years before massive recalls of the products began. The air bags could malfunction, sending shards of metal at drivers and passengers, and were linked to at least 18 deaths worldwide.
Recalls of Takata air bags began accelerating in 2014, with the product ultimately becoming the subject of the largest recall in U.S. history. The fallout for Takata and its customers was enormous. The automakers this year have agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle consumer actions claiming economic loss. Takata reached a $1 billion settlement with the U.S. to resolve a criminal investigation. In June, the company filed for bankruptcy protection
The Takata and VW cases helped establish a playbook of sorts for U.S. firms looking to pursue litigation against both Kobe Steel and the companies that used its products, said Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York.
“It’s their product,” he said. “The plaintiffs could ask, ‘Where were you with your quality control?’”