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A federal judicial panel has issued a three-page order merging seven pending civil suits charging rebate fraud against truck stop chain Pilot Flying J before a judge in Lexington, Ky.

The order issued Monday follows by only a few days a hearing in San Diego. Lawyers for Pilot had requested the cases be consolidated in Knoxville, but the trucking companies, including Wright Transportation of Alabama, had opposed the move.

In its ruling the panel concluded that the seven cases dealt with similar factual issues "arising out of allegations that the defendants engaged in a fraudulent scheme of withholding diesel fuel rebates."

The panel noted that still more suits are likely to be filed against the Knoxville-based firm.

"We conclude that the Eastern District of Kentucky is the most appropriate transferee district," the ruling states, adding that U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar is currently presiding over a criminal investigation into the same allegations.

Lawyers for the trucking firms had argued that consolidation was not necessary because of the relatively small number of cases.

"We are not persuaded that there are too few for the litigation to benefit from centralization," the order states.

Aubrey Harwell, Pilot's attorney, said he was pleased with the decision although the company would have preferred that the cases be merged in Knoxville.

Pilot already has agreed to pay some $85 million to settle several other suits filed against the company. The settlement was reached under a class action filed in Arkansas last year.

The seven firms whose cases have now been moved to Kentucky had opted out of the settlement agreement along with about 20 others which have not filed suit. Three of the seven were originally filed in Alabama with others in New Jersey, New Mexico and Ohio.

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