By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism on Tuesday toward Tyson Foods Inc'schallenge to an almost $5.8 million judgment against the company over worker pay at an Iowa pork facility in a closely watched class action case.
The court's regular swing vote, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined liberal colleagues in questioning Tyson's legal arguments during a one-hour oral argument.
"I just don't understand your argument," Kennedy told Tyson's attorney, Carter Phillips.
The case has the potential for the justices to curb class action litigation, a goal for a business community eager to rein in big-money payouts in such lawsuits. But in light of the oral argument, it appeared Kennedy could hold the key vote in handing a win to the plaintiffs in part by focusing on the fact that Tyson failed to keep appropriate employee records.
The court is considering Tyson's objection to the use of statistics to determine liability and damages. Critics in the business community describe such use of statistics as "trial by formula" that violates defendants' due process rights, instead of assessing each claim individually for the more than 3,000 current and former employees who are suing.
Workers at the meat-processing facility, which employs around 1,300 people, sued in 2007, claiming they were entitled to overtime pay and damages because they were not paid for time spent putting on and taking off protective equipment and walking to work stations.
The ruling could turn on a 1946 Supreme Court precedent that said plaintiffs can rely on averages in such situations to determine claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Kennedy said without that precedent, the case would be much harder for the plaintiffs to argue the class should have been certified.
Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned Tyson's assertion that the workers should not be treated as a class because they had to wear different safety gear depending on their job function, saying no "wide disparity" existed in what they wore.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts was among those appearing more sympathetic to Tyson.
Roberts highlighted the fact that the jury awarded less in damages than the plaintiffs' expert had suggested. Roberts asked whether that would "call into question the significance" of the expert's statistics.
The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs following a trial in a federal district court in Iowa in 2011. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in 2014.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
The case is Tyson Foods Inc v. Bouaphakeo, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-1146.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)