Court cancels Warren Buffett, Jimmy Haslam trial over Pilot

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) – An unusual, billion-dollar trial between Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and the billionaire Haslam family was canceled by the court on Saturday, two days before it was scheduled to start.

“This confirms that the trial scheduled in this matter for January 8 and 9, 2024 is hereby canceled and has been removed from the Court’s calendar,” said a Saturday docket entry for the case. The entry said it was authorized by Vice Chancellor Morgan Zurn, the judge.

The Haslam family, Berkshire Hathaway and the chambers for Zurn could not be reached for comment.

The two-day non-jury trial in Delaware’s Court of Chancery was meant to determine the value of the Haslam family’s 20% stake in Pilot Travel Centers, the largest U.S. truck stop chain.

It was expected to feature testimony from Buffett’s designated successor, Greg Abel.

The Haslams, including Cleveland Browns football team owner Jimmy Haslam, sold Berkshire 80% of Pilot for $11 billion in two separate deals, in 2017 and January 2023.

They also have a put option, allowing them to sell the remaining 20% in the first two months of any year.

Pilot, which also operates under the Flying J brand, has about 650 locations and sold 13 billion gallons of fuel in 2022.

Each side has accused the other of accounting tricks to manipulate the Knoxville, Tennessee-based company’s earnings before interest and taxes, or EBIT, which determines the value of the Haslam’s 20% stake.

According to the Haslams, after Berkshire obtained the 80% Pilot stake it adopted “pushdown accounting” that would reduce how much it would owe if the put option were exercised.

A lawyer for Berkshire said in court that depending on which side’s accounting was used, EBIT would differ by $1.2 billion.

The trial outcome would have turned on a simple question: was Berkshire required to get the Haslams’ consent for the accounting change?

Berkshire said it did nothing wrong.

It said it has met its contractual obligations because adopting pushdown accounting did not amount to a change in “accounting policy.”

The trial comes less than two months after the death of Charlie Munger, a Berkshire vice chairman and Buffett’s long-term confidante, left a void that increased Abel’s responsibilities at the Omaha, Nebraska, conglomerate.

Abel, 61, who is also a vice chairman and maintains a low public profile, was publicly identified in 2021 as Buffett’s eventual successor as chief executive.

He was on lists of potential witnesses to be called by both Berkshire and the Haslams.

Buffett, 93, was not expected to testify at the trial.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Chris Reese)