Federal judge allows some claims to proceed against truck-stop company owned by Haslams

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FRANKFORT, Kentucky — A judge ruled Wednesday that several trucking companies can proceed with claims they were cheated by a truck-stop company owned by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

The judge granted Pilot Flying J's motion to dismiss several other counts against the giant retailer.

U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar also dismissed seven of 11 civil claims against Jimmy Haslam, the company's CEO, and allowed four others to go forward, including accusations of unjust enrichment and conspiracy to commit fraud. Jimmy Haslam has not been charged with any crime.

The trucking companies claim they were cheated out of fuel rebates and discounts promised by Knoxville, Tennessee-based Pilot Flying J, the nation's largest diesel retailer with annual revenues of around $30 billion.

"Pilot's efforts to delay this case are over," Leonard Leicht, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said after the ruling. "We look forward to engaging in discovery with Pilot and finally obtaining all of the underlying documents which have never been produced. ... This includes data as to their actual costs, which will finally enable my client to calculate the amount of money it lost as a result of Pilot's fraud."

Leicht is an attorney for National Retail Transportation and Keystone Freight, among several trucking companies that opted out of a settlement that resolved most of the lawsuits against Pilot.

Pilot agreed to pay out nearly $85 million to 5,500 customers as part of the settlement. The trucking companies involved in Wednesday's ruling decided to pursue their own lawsuits.

Pilot attorney Aubrey Harwell said the remaining plaintiffs opted out of a settlement that "would have assured them any amount owed plus interest and chose instead ... to make exorbitant, overreaching claims."

"We're pleased the court dismissed a number of the plaintiffs' claims and we believe that the remaining efforts by the plaintiffs to collect excessive damages and attorneys' fees lack merit," Harwell said Wednesday. "We intend to continue to defend against them vigorously."

Thapar heard arguments on Pilot's motion to dismiss the lawsuits last month in Covington, Kentucky.

The judge on Wednesday allowed two dozen counts by the trucking companies to proceed against Pilot. They include claims of breach of contract, fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

Thapar granted Pilot's motion to dismiss more than a dozen other counts.

Jimmy Haslam has said he had no knowledge of the scheme. Bill Haslam holds an undisclosed ownership share in the company but has said he is not involved in Pilot's day-to-day operations.

Ten former employees have pleaded guilty to some form of wire or mail fraud since federal agents raided Pilot's Tennessee headquarters in April 2013.

Pilot agreed to pay $92 million in fines and accept responsibility for the criminal conduct of its employees while the government agreed not to prosecute the company. The agreement required Pilot to comply with several conditions, including cooperation in the investigation of people who may have been involved in the fraud. It did not protect any individual at Pilot from prosecution.

FBI special agent Robert H. Root said in an affidavit filed in federal court that the scheme involved sales team members reducing the amount of money that was due to trucking company customers they deemed too unsophisticated to notice. The scheme was widely known in the sales department, according to court documents, with supervisors teaching other employees how to do it.

Court records said the scheme lasted from at least 2007 until an FBI raid in April 2013.

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