Judge in tuna-fixing class-action suit creates four tracks for plaintiffs

Published on
August 5, 2019

The judge presiding over the class-action lawsuit alleging a price-fixing conspiracy amongst the so-called “Big Three” tuna companies has made the decision to approve four separate tracks on which the suit will continue.

Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee, and StarKist, as well as their parent companies, face potential punitive damages from claims they participated in a scheme to artificially inflate the prices of canned tuna. Bumble Bee and StarKist have both pleaded guilty in related criminal cases brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, while Chicken of the Sea avoided criminal prosecution, as it served as the whistleblower in the case.

In a 30 July ruling, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California Judge Janis L. Sammartino approved the division of the lawsuit into four tracks: claims brought by the direction purchasers bringing their owns suits against the tuna companies, or so called “direct-action plaintiffs” (DAPs); direct purchasers pursuing a collective class action (DPPs); indirect purchasers moving forward as a putative class, or commercial food-preparers (CFPs); and individual consumers proceeding as a joint class, or end-payer plaintiffs (EPPs).

The DAPs have indicated they will opt-out of any class that is certified, therefore Sammartino focused her judgment on arguments in favor of and opposed to the creation of the DPP, CFP, and EPP classes. 

Parties currently included in the DPP class include: Olean Wholesale Grocery Cooperative, Inc.; Pacific Groservice Inc. d/b/a PITCO Foods; Piggly Wiggly Alabama Distributing Co., Inc.; Howard Samuels as Trustee in Bankruptcy for Central Grocers, Inc.; Trepco Imports and Distribution Ltd.; and Benjamin Foods LLC.

Parties currently included in the CFP class include: Thyme Café & Market; Simon-Hindi LLC, d/b/a Simon’s; Capitol Hill Supermarket; Confetti’s; Maquoketa Care Center, Inc; A-1 Diner; Francis T. Enterprises d/b/a Erbert & Gerbert’s; Groucho’s Deli of Raleigh; Sandee’s Catering; Groucho’s Deli of Five Points; Rushin Gold d/b/a the Gold Rush; and Erbert & Gerbert’s.

Parties currently included in the EPP class include 73 individual consumers. 

In seeking certification as classes, each plaintiff group enlisted an econometric expert to submit a report, which was then countered by a report compiled by experts hired by the interests defending the tuna companies.

“The reports detail the canned tuna market characteristics and state the experts’ findings regarding whether there is evidence to support that a conspiracy occurred; whether all, or nearly all, of the Class members suffered impact; and whether damages can reasonably be calculated,”  according to Sammartino’s judgment.

In the case of the DPP, the CFP, and the EPP classes, Sammartino found the evidence put forward by each expert for the plaintiffs was substantial enough to warrant the creation of a separate class.

“The evidence put forward … supplemented by the correlation tests, the record evidence, and the guilty pleas and admissions entered in this case, is sufficient to show common questions predominate as to common impact,” Sammartino said.

Sammartino additionally approved Hausfeld LLP to continue operating as class counsel for the DPPs; Cuneo Gilbert & Laduca LLP to continue as representatives of the CFPs; and Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP to continue as counsel for the EPPs. 

Each class’s counsel must now submit a proposal on how they will disseminate the existence of the class to all potential parties in the lawsuit, which is due within 30 days.

Photo courtesy of Ballotpedia

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