SAN DIEGO (CN) - An ongoing antitrust case against seafood giants got even bigger as the federal government has intervened in litigation against the likes of Bumble Bee, Tri-Union Seafoods, StarKist, and others.
U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino held a status conference Wednesday in a room filled to the brim with more than 50 lawyers from around the nation, hoping to move the case forward.
The U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division filed an unopposed motion to intervene in the lengthy litigation on Jan. 13. The feds are seeking a limited stay of discovery to aid in an ongoing federal grand jury investigation in the Northern District of California, into whether the biggest canned tuna producers violated the Sherman Act by conspiring to fix prices.
The original class action complaint was filed in San Diego by Olean Wholesale Grocery Cooperative on Aug. 3, 2015. Dozens of lawsuits over price-fixing by the three biggest packed-seafood companies have since trickled into San Diego Federal Court after being transferred from other courts across the nation.
The three companies control 73 percent of the U.S. market: Bumble Bee, 29 percent; StarKist, 25.3 percent; and Tri-Union, 18.4 percent, according to the complaint.
Both Bumble Bee and Tri-Union Seafoods, which makes Chicken of the Sea brand shelf-stable tuna, are headquartered in San Diego - once the tuna-fishing capital of the world.
At Wednesday's status conference, Sammartino heard from plaintiffs' attorneys on multiple items, with the top concern being how to divvy up the case so that all interests are properly represented.
Plaintiffs' attorneys want the case to be divided into several "tracks" including a case for direct-purchaser plaintiffs, indirect-purchaser plaintiffs, class action plaintiffs and commercial food preparers. A plaintiff steering committee of lead attorneys would be established to represent the entire group.
The two purchaser groups could not come to an agreement among themselves as to who would serve as lead counsel, however, so Sammartino will decide who will serve on the steering committee once briefs on the matter have been filed by Feb. 1.
Belinda Lee, representing defendant StarKist, had concerns about divvying up the litigation into many different tracks. She instead suggested the court split the massive case into two tracks: direct and indirect.
"I've given so much thought as to how to structure this and streamline this," Sammartino said.
"I'd love to see less than four tracks, but that might not happen because all the interests need to be represented. What is it going to take to move this large case forward in a way that's efficient?"
The umbrella litigation will get even larger as more cases are expected to be filed within one to two weeks.
Both civil and criminal actions filed against the "Big Three" pertain to claims of collusive conduct among packaged seafood manufacturers, with allegations of a conspiracy to fix prices, rig bids or allocate markets.
Plaintiffs also asked defendants at the status conference to provide all documents produced by the Justice Department connected to the grand jury before they file a consolidated amended complaint, which is expected in the next couple months.
Sammartino advised plaintiffs who want to be appointed to leadership positions on the steering committee to file their briefs by Feb. 1. Following the appointment of head attorneys by the judge, the plaintiffs and defendants will meet with the Justice Department.
Consolidated complaints covering the different tracks will be due 45 days after leaders are established.
Major plaintiffs in the case include Affiliated Foods, Harvesters Enterprises, Giant Eagle, Associated Grocers, Albertsons Companies and The Kroger Company among many others.
Sammartino set the next hearing for March 11.