In a ruling that should come as a surprise to some, a lower court in Puerto Rico, in Autos Servicios Nissan Kia Inc. v. Motorambar, Inc. No. KAC2008-1390 (906)(San Juan Part, March 4, 2009)(Olivette Sagebien Raffo, J.), held that plaintiff, a sub-distributor of Nissan and Kia automobiles, did not qualify for protection as a Law 75 dealer because it had no distribution agreements with the manufacturers. In a ruling that could have far-reaching implications beyond the facts of the case, the court also held that defendant, the exclusive general distributor in Puerto Rico, who appointed the sub-distributor, was not a “principal” for purposes of being able to confer distribution rights under Law 75. The court found that Law 75’s definition of a “principal or grantor” as the person who enters into a dealer’s contract with a distributor “clearly did not apply” to a general distributor who grants distribution rights to a sub-distributor. The court then relied on Law 75’s legislative history to conclude that the intent was to provide a remedy against abusive practices of manufacturers who cancel unilaterally the distribution rights of distributors. According to this analysis, the principal can only be the manufacturer of a product or service. The case is still pending but the decision has not been appealed.
The lower court’s holding is difficult to reconcile with the plain language of Law 75, its remedial purpose, and with precedent not discussed by the lower court. In J. Soler Motors v. Kaiser Jeep Int’l, 108 D.P.R. 134 (D.P.R. 1978), the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico court rejected an argument that Law 75 does not protect a non-exclusive retailer of automobiles in a geographic region within the territory. The court recognized that “in the transfer of a product from the manufacturer to the consumer a number of intermediaries are involved in forming the chain of distribution.” (Translation ours). Construing the statutory definitions of a Law 75 dealer broadly and finding no provision excluding non-exclusive retailers, the court held that “Law 75 has the purpose of protecting the Puerto Rican intermediaries that represent a product or service in the different levels of the chain of distribution.” (Translation ours).
The lower court’s Motorambar’s blanket exclusion that Law 75 protects only the vertical relationships between a manufacturer and a distributor is questionable for it ignores that many other intermediaries participate in the chain of distribution, including sub-distributors, who may qualify for protection under Law 75.