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Friday, August 16, 2019

Class action lawsuits over the price of tuna clear major hurdle

Federal Gov

By John Breslin | Aug 12, 2019

SAN DIEGO (Legal Newsline) – A federal judge in California has certified three putative classes in lawsuits against canned tuna manufacturers over alleged violations of federal anti-trust statutes.

Judge Janis L. Sammartino of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, who is overseeing the multi-district litigation, granted class certification to three different groups of members July 30. The classes are the direct purchasers, commercial food preparers and end payers.

While the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California will preside over all the actions, Sammartino separated them onto three tracks with different counsel leading each. The judge ruled that each group satisfied the criteria for class certification.

The defendants in this case are the three largest U.S. producers of canned tuna: Bumble Bee Foods LLC; Tri-Union Seafoods LLC, doing business as Chicken of the Sea; and StarKist Co., along with their parent companies.

Various legal actions began in 2015, with plaintiffs claiming the three companies conspired to elevate prices above "competitive levels in violation of state and federal antitrust laws," the court decision states.

These actions were brought together as a multi-district litigation with the plaintiffs based in 27 states and Washington, D.C.

Sammartino initially divided the plaintiffs into ground groups, those directly buying from the companies and suing individually, direct buyers as part of a class, indirect buyers such as diners and supermarkets and consumers. That number was reduced to three as part of the class certification process.

Included in the allegations against the packaged tuna companies is that they agreed to "fix certain net and list prices for packaged tuna... to limit promotional activity for packaged tuna, and... to exchange sensitive or confidential business information for the purpose of facilitating the object of the conspiracy," the ruling states. 

It is claimed the conspiracy began in November 2010 and continued until December 2016.

Separately, the three companies were the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, one that led to indictments of both the firms and individual employees.

According to the ruling on class action certification, the "defendants and individual employees have pled guilty and the DOJ has entered multiple indictments."

"As of the filing of this order, Bumble Bee has pled guilty to price-fixing of packaged tuna products and been criminally fined," Sammartino wrote. "Two of Bumble Bee’s senior executives have also pled guilty and its CEO has been indicted in the Northern District of California."

Further, StarKist pleaded guilty and is set to be criminally fined, while one of its senior executives similarly confessed. Chicken of the Sea has admitted to price fixing and is cooperating with the DOJ investigation, according to Sammartino's ruling.

In deciding whether the motions for class actions be granted, Sammartino weighed whether there is evidence of a conspiracy, whether the members were impacted, and whether damages can be reasonably calculated.

The court also had to decide whether there were questions of law common to all class members, and if it was "superior" to other available ways to adjudicate the dispute.

All three groups of members satisfied various provisions of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs whether a class action should be certified.

Sammartino also agreed that interim lead counsel for each group continue as they have been "effective and efficient and the court believes they will fairly and adequately represent the classes."

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U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California

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