Connecticut state court judge Joseph M. Shortall disagreed with Tesla’s “educational venue” defense of a vehicle display gallery in Greenwich, concluding in a December 6, 2018 ruling that its business activities are illegal under state law. The gallery, opened in October 2016, was ordered in May 2017 to “cease all functions” by Connecticut’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), claiming it was operating its 340 Greenwich Ave. location like a dealership, an activity requiring a license for which Tesla is not eligible. Tesla subsequently filed a lawsuit primarily arguing the definition of sales-oriented terms; however, the Superior Court of the New Britain Judicial District affirmed the DMV’s ruling, beginning a period wherein Tesla may file an appeal.
Connecticut state law forbids direct vehicle sales by vehicle manufacturers in favor of a “franchise system”, a set of laws meant to protect independent car dealerships from predatory practices of larger car manufacturing companies. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, has made it a company policy not to sell their electric vehicles to independent dealerships primarily because he believes franchises face a “fundamental conflict of interest” when selling both gas and electric vehicles. Also, Tesla would miss an important opportunity to educate potential buyers about its products in a traditional dealership setting.
“Existing franchise dealers have a fundamental conflict of interest between selling gasoline cars, which constitute the vast majority of their business, and selling the new technology of electric cars. It is impossible for them to explain the advantages of going electric without simultaneously undermining their traditional business. This would leave the electric car without a fair opportunity to make its case to an unfamiliar public.” – Elon Musk, October 22, 2012
It was the “educational” angle that the company took while operating their Greenwich location, claiming that prospective buyers were merely being given information about their unique technology along with a test drive opportunity. Any sales which followed were conducted online and delivery was out-of-state. The DMV, and later the Superior Court judge, disagreed, citing related activities conducted by the Greenwich team that were more sales-specific, such as commissions and bonuses tied to sales resulting from discussions at the gallery and the ability of Tesla to reclaim vehicles if they weren’t picked up by the customer within one week of delivery.
In the Superior Court’s ruling, decided by Judge Trial Referee Joseph M. Shortall, the term “selling” was also agreed to be all-inclusive of advertising and merchandising activities, a definition promoted by the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Trade Association (CARA). The association has been on the front-line of debates involving franchise systems, arguing that they ensure fair competition while demanding that Tesla comply with existing laws and license to independent dealerships as has been the tradition for decades. CARA was the party responsible for initiating the complaint about Tesla’s activities in the state, prompting the DMV’s investigation and order.
With regard to the recent ruling, a Tesla spokesperson tells Teslarati, “Tesla disagrees with the judge’s decision, and we stand by our mission to educate the public and raise awareness about the benefits of EVs because getting more EVs on the road is the right thing to do for the environment and for the battle against climate change.” Although the issue driving CARA’s objection surrounds the issue of “sales”, Tesla does not sell any vehicles at their Greenwich location.
Since Tesla does not license their vehicle sales to independent dealers, the company position is that its business should not be subject to the same laws as manufacturers with licensed franchises. As seen by this latest court ruling, Tesla’s position isn’t exactly a shared one. To date, the company has not been successful in convincing Connecticut’s legislature to revise the direct-sales laws and with organizations like CARA lobbying against such changes, the battle certainly seems uphill.
Connecticut state legislation to amend the direct-sales ban has been proposed twice before, both times stalling from lack of votes. Despite the potential for increased sales tax revenue and jobs from a distribution facility that would come from a Tesla presence in the state, CARA and the state legislators that are friendly to its positions are on the winning side of the matter, even if its tactics to paint a negative picture of the company are questionable. According to Tesla’s former vice president of business development, Diarmuid O’Connell, in a letter to state legislators, CARA previously sent secret shoppers into the Greenwich gallery to sway Tesla employees into illegally selling a vehicle from the storefront. The attempt, of course, failed.