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Tesla sues Michigan, challenging law that automakers must sell through dealers

Tesla Motors Inc. sued Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other top state officials Thursday, challenging a law that ensures automakers can sell only through independent, franchised dealerships and not directly to customers.

The federal lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment that the 2014 “anti-Tesla” law is unconstitutional and an injunction to prevent its enforcement.

Last week, the Michigan Department of State denied Tesla’s application for a dealer license to sell to consumers, citing the law that is backed by big auto companies and their dealerships. It has not yet decided on Tesla's bid to register a vehicle repair facility in the state, which is home to the Detroit Three carmakers.

“The sole purpose for applying [the law] to a non-franchising manufacturer like Tesla is to insulate Michigan's entrenched automobile dealers and manufacturers from competition,” Tesla said in the suit. “This is not a legitimate government interest under the U.S. Constitution.”

Tesla, which is based in Palo Alto, said it prefers that legislation be enacted to lift the ban on direct sales but was told by legislators in June that no hearing will be held.

“As a result of this law, Michigan consumers are forced to accept reduced access to the products they want, less competition and higher prices. Tesla will continue to fight for the rights of Michigan consumers to be able to choose how they buy cars in Michigan,” Tesla said in a statement.

In 2014, the Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature amended state law to clarify that car companies can sell only through franchised dealers. Tesla officials said it was a last-minute, monopolistic strike at their upstart company, which has no traditional dealerships.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said he does not comment on pending lawsuits.

“The governor is always willing to review legislation presented to him if the state Legislature feels a change in the law is necessary,” Adler said.

When Snyder signed the law, he urged lawmakers to engage in a “healthy, open” discussion about whether the business model in Michigan is working.

Also named in the suit are Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette. Johnson spokesman Fred Woodhams said the agency followed the law in denying Tesla's dealership application.

Tesla operates stores in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Tesla also operates in 20 other countries. There are no countries where Tesla has not been able to sell directly, and the only states where it has been unable to get a license are Michigan, Texas, Connecticut and Utah.

Tesla was on the receiving end of a lawsuit in Norway, where more than 100 Tesla owners claimed that their vehicles aren't as powerful as advertised.

The lawsuit said the Model S P85D delivers only 469 horsepower, instead of the promised 700 hp.

Kaspar Thommessen, one of the lawyers representing the 126 car owners in the suit, said Thursday that under Norwegian consumer law the normal compensation would be a discount, “if the seller doesn't remedy the defect.”

He said an Oslo court is scheduled to hear the case in December.

In an emailed statement, Tesla Europe said: “Testing done by Tesla and independent third parties has demonstrated that the Model S P85D's acceleration and motor power numbers have always been accurate, even understated.” 

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