Tesla to Cite Historic Case of Monk-Made Coffins in its Fight to Sell Direct

Tesla legal staff is prepared to cite a historic case of monks selling coffins to consumers in its fight to justify its direct sales model in six states.

With Model 3 fast approaching and Tesla’s goal of having it appeal to the general mass market, the silicon valley automaker/energy company continues its battle against Arizona, Michigan, Texas, Connecticut, Utah and West Virginia – representing 18% of the US new car market – for the right to sell direct within the state. But the fight to sell direct has been fraught with state and dealer association opposition and now Tesla is ready to take it to federal court. Tesla legal staff is prepared to cite a historic case of monks being able to sell coffins to consumers as justification for it being able to sell vehicles directly as well. Here’s the story.

After Hurricane Katrina, coffins in Louisiana were in short supply. According to CNET, the monks from St. Joseph Abbey in New Orleans had coffins available, but were prevented from selling them to the public because they needed a license from the Louisiana board of funeral directors. The funeral directors refused to issue a license to St. Joseph Abbey so the monks sued in federal court.

The court sided with the monks and the state appealed. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court, citing a doctrine known as “economic liberty.” It doesn’t take much of a stretch to draw an analogy between the Louisiana board of funeral directors and various state licensing agencies in Arizona, Michigan, Texas, Connecticut, Utah and West Virginia that refuse to allow Tesla to pursue its direct sales model at the behest of local auto dealer associations.

Tesla’s chief legal counsel, Todd Maron, is quoted by NASDAQ as saying, “It is widely accepted that laws that have a protectionist motivation or effect are not proper. Tesla is committed to not being foreclosed from operating in the states it desires to operate in, and all options are on the table.” One of those options is filing suit in federal court asking that the “economic liberty” concept recognized by the Fifth Circuit be applied to permit Tesla to sell its cars directly to consumers who live in those six states.

Until now, other federal circuit courts have refused to adopt the “economic liberty” doctrine, leaving Tesla little choice but to take the case to the US Supreme Court. One common function of the US Supreme Court is to resolve disputes between the circuit courts. But if the Supreme Court cannot muster a majority, the rulings appealed from are allowed to stand. In other words, unless Tesla can prevail at the Supreme Court level, it risks having contrary rulings in other federal appeals courts affirmed as the controlling law in those jurisdictions.

In reality, it often takes years for a case to make its way to the US Supreme Court. But until that happens, a federal challenge to dealer franchise laws could solidify the forces that oppose the direct sales to consumers model.

Perhaps Tesla is only bringing up the case of coffin selling monks to put pressure on legislators in those six key states. The beauty of the law is that, once suit is filed, anything can happen and no one can accurately predict the outcome. Decision makers crave certainty. By going to federal court, Tesla could create enough uncertainty to make state leaders want to find a resolution that leaves them some wiggle room.

Whatever happens, Tesla is showing all concerned it is sticking to its guns and intends to pursue its goals as vigorously as possible. It seems it is only a matter of time before it wears down the opposition and wins the right to sell direct to consumers.


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