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Vivendi wins significant narrowing of U.S. lawsuit

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Vivendi SA <VIV.PA> won a big court victory when a federal judge significantly narrowed a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit accusing the French media company of misleading shareholders about its finances prior to a $46 billion merger a decade ago.

U.S. District Judge Richard Holwell threw out claims by purchasers of Vivendi's ordinary shares, citing a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that limited the ability of investors to use federal courts to raise fraud claims over the purchase of foreign securities.

Lawyers for the investors estimated their clients could be entitled to as much as $9.3 billion.

The lawsuit now includes only investors in the United States, England, France and the Netherlands who acquired Vivendi's American depositary shares between October 30, 2000 and August 14, 2002. The shares fell nearly 90 percent in that time.

"We're delighted. This is a substantial victory," said Paul Saunders, a lawyer at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP representing Vivendi, in an interview.

He said Holwell's ruling "has the effect of eliminating up to 90 percent of the potential damages" faced by Vivendi, Europe's largest telecommunications and entertainment company.

Lawyers for the investors did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

MORRISON APPLIES

Last June, in the case Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd <NAB.AX>, a unanimous Supreme Court said investors could not invoke a widely used federal securities law when they buy and sell the shares of those companies on non-U.S. exchanges.

This ruling has since led to dismissals of lawsuits against several other companies such as Swiss bank Credit Suisse Group AG <CSGN.VX>, German automaker Porsche SE <PSHG_p.DE> and the French bank Societe Generale <SOGN.PA>.

In his 122-page ruling, Holwell said there could be "little doubt" the Supreme Court "clearly sought to bar claims based on purchases and sales of foreign securities on foreign exchanges," even if the purchasers were American.

The case arose from Vivendi's three-way merger in 2000 with Seagram Co and Canal Plus, which transformed the French water utility into a global music and television giant.

In January 2010, a Manhattan federal jury found that Vivendi made 57 statements from October 2000 to August 2002 that were too rosy or hid liquidity problems.

The case is In re Vivendi Universal SA Securities Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 02-05571.

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