ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court has reinstated a class action lawsuit by Bristol Bay salmon fishermen who accuse processors and buyers of conspiring to fix prices in the world's largest salmon fishery.
The court Friday overturned a 1999 summary judgment ruling by Superior Court Judge Peter A. Michalski in favor of the defendant companies.
That doesn't mean the higher court decided the fishermen deserve to win their case, simply that there are issues that should be decided by a jury, not simply ruled on by a judge.
Still, lawyers for the fishermen praised the decision.
''The billion-dollar Japanese corporations and Seattle-based processors should now face an Alaska jury on charges of conspiracy to fix, manipulate and depress salmon prices,'' said Phillip Weidner, lead counsel for the roughly 3,500 salmon fishermen.
The lawsuit was filed back in 1995, when the salmon market was far different from the low-price environment today in the wake of the explosion of salmon farming around the world.
Friday's 83-page opinion, written by Chief Justice Dana Fable, devotes about 25 of those pages to detailing the overall system of fish buying in Bristol Bay and the plaintiffs' evidence that the companies might have been colluding to keep prices low in the early 1990s.
The court then concludes there there's enough evidence of possible anticompetitive practices that the case should go to trial.
For example, the court said the plaintiffs' lawyers had submitted evidence that ''tends to show that defendant processors and importers collaborated to exert pressure on smaller processors and importers who offered higher prices and threatened the stability of the lower prevailing market prices in Bristol Bay.''
It's still a tough case, with no direct evidence that the processors and some of their Japanese parents, the fish importers, met in back rooms to set prices and market shares.
The court notes that a plaintiff in an antitrust case ''may support his case solely with circumstantial evidence.'' But the plaintiffs do need to show more than simply a pattern of similar conduct by the companies.
However, the court said, ''Because much of the plaintiffs' evidence in this case tends to exclude the possibility of independent action, we reverse the grant of summary judgment....''
The fishermen sought $500 million in actual damages and $1 billion in punitive damages when the case was filed seven years ago.
In a sidelight to the main ruling in the case, the state's highest court said that the fishermen couldn't claim damages beyond the normal four-year statute of limitations just because the possible antitrust violations amounted to a continuing pattern of conduct that extended beyond that period.
''That does reduce the exposure (potential damages) somewhat,'' said Weidner, the fishermen's lead lawyer. ''But there's still very, very significant exposure.''
Since the case was filed three dozen mostly minor defendants settled out of court for about $15 million, a sum that will remain in an escrow account until the case is resolved, Weidner said.
But most of the big names -- among them Wards Cove Packing Co., Trident Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, and Unisea Inc. -- chose to fight.
Chief Justice Fabe heard the case along with justices Warren W. Matthews and Alexander O. Bryner. Justices Robert L. Eastaugh and Walter L. Carpeneti did not participate.
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