WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Class action lawsuits filed against the three largest producers of packaged seafood products in the United States will be consolidated in a California federal court.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation issued its transfer order Dec. 9.

The five-member panel selected the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California to handle the lawsuits, saying the federal court will serve “the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of this litigation.”

“These actions share factual questions arising out of an alleged conspiracy by defendants -- the three largest producers of packaged seafood products in the U.S. with an alleged collective market share of more than 70 percent -- to fix prices of packaged seafood products,” wrote Sarah Vance, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and chair of the MDL panel.

The alleged anticompetitive conduct by the companies -- including Thai Union, owner of brand Chicken of the Sea; Bumble Bee; and Starkist -- is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, the panel noted.

“The actions assert overlapping putative nationwide classes of direct or indirect purchasers of packaged seafood products, and all actions assert violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act,” Vance wrote in the three-page order.

“Centralization will eliminate duplicative discovery; prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, particularly with respect to class certification; and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary.”

According to the MDL panel’s order, the litigation consists of nine actions pending in three districts. The panel said it has been notified of 44 related actions pending in four districts.

Vance said in the panel’s order that the Southern District of California was the most “convenient.”

“The vast majority of the related actions already are pending in this district, most before Judge Janis L. Sammartino, who has related the cases before her,” the panel chair wrote. “Moreover, three defendants are headquartered in this district and, therefore, relevant documents and witnesses are likely to be found there.”

Sammartino will oversee the MDL, according to the order.

Earlier this month, just ahead of the panel’s order, both Thai Union and Bumble Bee announced they would abandon their plans to merge after the DOJ informed the companies it had “serious concerns” that the proposed transaction would hurt competition.

“Consumers are better off without this deal,” Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer of the department’s Antitrust Division said in a statement. “Our investigation convinced us -- and the parties knew or should have known from the get go -- that the market is not functioning competitively today, and further consolidation would only make things worse.”

Thai Union’s proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee would have combined the second and third largest sellers of shelf-stable tuna in the U.S. in a market long dominated by three major brands, as well as combined the first and second largest domestic sellers of other shelf-stable seafood products.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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