Supreme Court denies Tuna packaging giant’s price-fixing appeal

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Supreme Court refused on Nov. 14 to hear StarKist’s appeal of a lower court ruling certifying a price-fixing lawsuit filed against it as a class action.

Reston, Virginia-based StarKist, which is owned by South Korea’s Dongwon Industries, produces packaged tuna fish for the mass market. It’s being sued by several individuals—as well as grocery chains, restaurants, and caterers—for allegedly fixing the price of tuna sold between 2011 and 2013 in the United States.

StarKist, Bumble Bee, and three tuna industry executives entered guilty pleas to criminal conspiracy to fix prices.

The case is StarKist Co. v. Olean Wholesale Grocery Cooperative, (court file 22-131).

A class-action lawsuit is filed when a group of people or businesses suffer common injuries as a result of a party’s alleged conduct.

At least one individual or entity acts as a representative of the group.

In order for the lawsuit to proceed, a court first needs to decide if the various allegedly injured parties have enough in common to be certified as a class.

The Supreme Court provided no reasons for its decision in its unsigned order denying StarKist’s petition.

On April 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a 2019 ruling by federal Judge Janis Sammartino certifying the creation of three separate classes in the suit—direct purchasers, indirect purchasers, and end payers. But StarKist argued that many of the customers certified, including direct purchasers, didn’t experience actual harm as a result of its actions.

Some business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, backed StarKist in legal filings. The chamber told the Supreme Court in a friend-of-the-court brief that the class-certification process can be unfair because “there are too many judges who, despite this court’s instructions, continue to put a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of class certification.”

The U.S. Department of Justice investigated tuna packagers, including StarKist, for price fixing.

StarKist entered a guilty plea, acknowledging it fixed the prices of canned tuna going back as early as November 2011 and lasting as late as December 2013. The company was fined $100 million in 2019.

Former Bumble Bee CEO Christopher Lischewski was sentenced to 40 months of imprisonment in 2020, according to a Reuters summary.

StarKist told the Supreme Court in its petition that it disputed the claim that it conspired to manipulate the list prices for hundreds of different tuna products. The list price “for the products at issue is virtually never the price paid by direct purchasers, like a Costco, or passed through to individual consumers downstream,” the petition stated.

“Instead, the actual price paid derives from purchaser-specific negotiations and a host of other factors that often result in variations from the list price.”

It added that the price of a specific product reflects “numerous, highly individualized factors.”

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Nov. 14, 2022, in The Epoch Times.