September 17, 2019

US: Plaintiffs suing tuna companies in price-fixing case get class action status

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By Stephanie Ritenbaugh From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Plaintiffs suing the Big Three tuna companies — Bumble Bee Foods, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea — over alleged price fixing among the competitors have been granted class certification.

The judge’s decision is good news for the plaintiffs, as such certification generally means lower legal costs and an increase in the likelihood of seeing a financial reward.

The lawsuits, initially filed in 2015, allege that the three largest tuna companies conspired to keep the price of the staple of lunch boxes and pantries artificially high between at least November 2010 and December 2016.

Federal Judge Janis Sammartino last week approved three tracks for the suits to continue. One class is the “direct purchaser plaintiffs,” which includes warehouse and distribution companies like Olean Wholesale Grocery Cooperative Inc., Piggly Wiggly Alabama Distributing Co. and Benjamin Foods LLC.

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The second is the “commercial food preparer plaintiffs,” which includes eateries like Thyme Cafe & Market, A-1 Diner and Groucho’s Deli of Five Points.

The third track is the “end payer plaintiff,” which represents individual consumers who bought tuna to eat. The class includes consumers in 30 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam.

A fourth group pursuing claims against the tuna companies — the “direct action plaintiffs” who bought products directly from the tuna companies — have said they will opt out of any class certification, according to court documents. 

To secure class-action status, plaintiffs must successfully argue that the facts of their case have enough in common for them to be grouped together and would be more efficient proceeding as a group. No trial date is set yet.

The 59-page order was filed July 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

The U.S. Department of Justice has been looking into allegations that the three largest tuna companies — Pittsburgh-based StarKist, which is owned by South Korea’s Dongwon Industries Co., as well as Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee Foods — conspired to inflate the price of canned and pouched tuna.

The investigation was prompted when the parent company of Chicken of the Sea, Thailand-based Thai Union Frozen, announced it would buy Bumble Bee for $1.51 billion. Plans for the deal were dropped in December 2015 after the DOJ said it had “serious concerns” the merger would harm competition. Bumble Bee is owned by Lion Capital LLP and Big Catch Cayman LP.  

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After that, a wave of civil lawsuits were filed by retailers, grocers, wholesalers and suppliers. Many plaintiffs have since settled with the companies —Walmart, Kroger and O’Hara-based Giant Eagle, to name a few. 

Chicken of the Sea was the first tuna producer to act as a whistleblower in the DOJ’s antitrust case. Both Bumble Bee Foods and StarKist have pleaded guilty to participating in the price-fixing conspiracy. Three former tuna company executives were previously charged and have pleaded guilty. 

In May 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Christopher Lischewski, former president and CEO of Bumble Bee Foods LLC, on a one-count felony charge that he carried out the conspiracy. Mr. Lischewski stepped down from the company. He has pleaded not guilty in that ongoing case.

For more on this story go to: https://www.post-gazette.com/business/money/2019/08/08/bumble-bee-chicken-of-the-sea-starkist-tuna-lawsuit-class-action-antitrust-price-fixing/stories/201908070034

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