Washington state sues Starkist over price-fixing
Bob Ferguson, the attorney general for the U.S. state of Washington, filed a civil lawsuit on 2 June against canned tuna producer Starkist, its parent company Dongwon Industries, and Chris Lischewski, the former CEO of Bumble Bee Foods, alleging a price-fixing conspiracy they were involved cost the state’s citizens at least USD 6 million (EUR 5.3 million).
Washington is the first state to bring a civil suit in the price-fixing scandal, which resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, resulting in guilty pleas from StarKist and Bumble Bee in separate criminal trials, and Lischewski’s conviction in a trial at the end of last year.
The state’s lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts the price-fixing conspiracy took place from 2004 through 2015 – longer than the 2011 to 2013 period alleged in the criminal complaint – and drove up the cost of packaged tuna sold in Washington, in violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act.
“As a result, Washington residents paid millions more than they should have,” a press statement issued by the Washington Office of the Attorney General said. “The conspiracy affected the prices consumers paid for packaged tuna, including cans and pouches. For example, if a consumer would have normally paid USD 1.00 [EUR 0.89] for a five-ounce can of chunk light tuna — one of the most popular tuna products — they would actually have paid perhaps USD 1.08 [EUR 0.96] as a result of this conspiracy.”
The inclusion of Dongwon gives Washington the ability to collect remuneration from the deep-pocketed Dongwon, which had more than USD 2.16 billion (EUR 1.92 billion) in combined sales in 2019. In its criminal judgment, StarKist said the USD 100 million (EUR 88 million) fine it faced could result in the company going bankrupt.
Not included in the suit are Bumble Bee or Chicken of the Sea, which also participated in the conspiracy. While Chicken of the Sea received immunity from criminal prosecution for serving as the whistleblower in the federal investigation, it is still eligible to be targeted by civil suits alleging involvement in illegal activity stemming from its involvement in the price-fixing scandal. Bumble Bee filed for bankruptcy in November 2019 and has since been bought by FCF Fishery Company.
The lawsuit is in large part based on the evidence laid out in the criminal case prosecuted by the Department of Justice. The lawsuit asks for restitution to Washington consumers and for reimbursement of the costs and fees of bringing the case.
“We cannot have a free market when corporate titans are able to tip the scales to their own bank accounts,” Ferguson said. “Washingtonians lost millions as a result of this corporate greed. I intend to get that back for them.”
Photo courtesy of Office of the Attorney General of Washington