New law could give Bristol Bay defense attorneys fee payments

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Defense attorneys for companies accused of price fixing in the Bristol Bay salmon trial have won passage of a bill in Juneau to make the lawyers eligible to collect court-awarded fees and costs in the event they win a case.

On Wednesday, Gov. Frank Murkowski signed House Bill 249, sponsored by Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage.

Previously, state law said only attorneys for plaintiffs that win an antitrust case could get court-awarded fees and costs from the losing side, said Jeff Feldman, defense attorney for seafood processor Trident Seafoods Corp. in the Bristol Bay case.

Lawyers for thousands of Bristol Bay commercial fishermen in the class-action civil trial, under way since Feb. 3 in Superior Court in Anchorage, are seeking more than $1 billion in damages from fish processors and Japanese importers. The companies are accused of conspiring to set artificially low prices for the fishermen's catches, an allegation the processors and importers adamantly deny.

As the trial progressed, Feldman went to Juneau to testify in support of the bill, which he suggested to McGuire, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Some defendants already have exited the Bristol Bay case, paying $40 million total to settle the lawsuit. That money is in an escrow account and plaintiff attorneys expect to get part of their pay from that pot. The new law means that the defense lawyers will have a shot at collecting part of their fees and expenses from the millions too, if they win.

The new law says individual class members, in this case fishermen, are not liable for defense legal fees.

Trident president Chuck Bundrant said it was only fair that defense attorneys, if they win, be able to recoup some of their fees and expenses from the fishermen's settlement fund, which he said was ''extorted'' from seafood processors and importers.

Some lawmakers in Juneau criticized the propriety of the Legislature passing the bill in the middle of the high-profile trial.

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