(CN) - A federal judge in Manhattan dismissed an antitrust lawsuit against Del Monte Fresh Produce that accused the company of bullying the competition in order to dominate the market for a type of extra-sweet pineapple.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman granted Del Monte summary judgment on the claims brought on behalf of retailers that sell Fresh Del Monte Gold pineapples, including Whole Foods Market and Publix Super Markets, and consumers. They had accused Del Monte of illegally obtaining a monopoly and charging excessive prices.
The Fresh Del Monte Gold pineapple, also known as MD-2, is the best-selling pineapple in the world, according to the plaintiffs. They say the pineapple is "extra sweet" and is "superior" in taste, color, vitamin C content and shelf life.
In 1995, Del Monte began sending "threat letters" to numerous Costa Rican laboratories involved in breeding the MD-2 seeds, the plaintiffs claimed. The letters allegedly advised the labs that Del Monte's plant material was being "stolen," and that it owned the patent for the MD-2 variety. They were signed by the company's former VP of research and development.
Del Monte also threatened its competitors with legal action under the Lanham Act, claims the plaintiffs described as "sham patent litigation."
Dole Food and Maui Land & Pineapple were among Del Monte's targets. Del Monte filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Maui in 2003 that was later dismissed.
But the plaintiffs said the threats and anticompetitive practices by Del Monte spurred its sales, which jumped from $150 million in 1995 to close to $440 million in 2002.
Del Monte has since acknowledged that the hybrid pineapple was not patented.
However, Judge Berman ruled that the plaintiffs "failed to raise triable issues of fact" on whether the Maui lawsuit and a trade-secrets claim against Dole constituted "sham litigation."
The judge backed up Del Monte's assertion that the threat letters were sent for "legitimate business justification" to "deter theft" of its plant material.
Del Monte owned the patent for CO-2 pineapples, a "sibling" of the MD-2.
The plaintiffs also accused Del Monte of submitting a fraudulent patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Those charges were previously dropped.
The judge rejected allegations that Del Monte derailed its competitors' plans to enter the Gold pineapple market, saying testimony by executives from Dole, Maui and Chiquita downplayed the effects of the "threats," with each citing other reasons for their companies' lack of presence in the market for extra-sweet pineapples.
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