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Dirty War Spells Trial in California for Mercedes

(CN) - A California federal judge can hear the plight of 22 Argentine residents who say Mercedes-Benz Argentina had a hand in the nation's brutal Dirty War, which raged for seven years after a military coup overthrew the government of President Isabel Peron in 1976, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.

The 22 plaintiffs were workers, or relatives of workers, at Mercedes-Benz's Gonzalez-Catan plant. They sued the automaker's parent, DaimlerChrysler, alleging that the company collaborated with state security forces to kidnap, detain, torture and kill them or their relatives during the Dirty War.

Mercedes-Benz allegedly labeled workers as subversives, passed the information to the military dictatorship and opened its plant to periodic raids by state security forces.

The company also hired the brutal police station chief, Ruben Lavallen, to act as Mercedes-Benz's security chief, and gave him legal representation when he was "accused of human rights abuses," according to the workers' complaint.

Relying on military power let Mercedes-Benz quell a strike and restore maximum production to the plant, workers say.

Though a federal judge dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction, the Pasadena-based federal appeals court said Wednesday that DaimlerChrysler is subject to personal jurisdiction in California because of its Mercedes-Benz USA subsidiary.

The Delaware-based arm of Mercedes-Benz is the single largest supplier of luxury vehicles to the California market, and has three offices and centers throughout California. Its sales in the Golden State alone accounted for 2.4 percent of DaimlerChrysler's total worldwide sales at the time the lawsuit was filed

These facts establish the required minimum necessary contacts for jurisdiction, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for a three-judge panel.

"To the ordinary American, and certainly to us, it would seem odd, indeed, if the manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, which are sold in California in vast numbers by its American subsidiary, for use on the state's streets and highways, could not be required to appear in the federal courts of that state," according to the 41-page decision. "Mercedes-Benz cars are ubiquitous in California, and Mercedes-Benz dealerships, required to display the signage mandated by DCAG, have a highly visible presence."

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