A class-action lawsuit against one of the country's largest seafood processors has taken a hit, after a judge said the plaintiffs failed to show the company used its enormous market share to suppress prices paid to fisherman.
In fact, U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner said in a ruling Tuesday, the evidence indicates Pacific Seafood has expanded the market for whiting, and that fishermen have been getting better prices as a result.
Prices paid to fishermen are at the heart of the lawsuit filed by two southern Oregon commercial fishermen against the seafood giant, The Oregonian reports.
Attorney Mike Haglund filed the suit in summer 2010. It alleges that after buying up processors from California to the Gulf of Alaska, Pacific controls 50 percent to 75 percent of the market for whiting, Dungeness crab, Pacific shrimp and groundfish.
The suit accuses Pacific Seafood of using that market share and coordination with other processors to drive down prices paid to fishermen. Such practices would violate federal anti-trust laws.
Pacific Seafood has denied the allegation. A trial is scheduled to begin in February 2012.
The plaintiffs asked the judge to prohibit Pacific Seafood from coordinating prices for whiting with Westport, Wash.-based Ocean Gold, the largest whiting processor on the West Coast.
Panner said in denying the motion that the evidence doesn't support the plaintiff's allegation.
"Instead, the evidence indicates that since 2006 defendants' combined operations have expanded the market for whiting," Panner wrote in the ruling.
"Each year since 2006 (other than 2009, when there was a worldwide recession), defendants have been paying fishermen significantly higher prices for whiting, with record prices paid in 2008," he wrote.
Pacific Seafood markets and sells all of Ocean Gold's fish. Haglund learned during the discovery process that Pacific Seafood was planning to buy Ocean Gold.
Pacific Seafood agreed in December to hold off on purchasing Ocean Gold.
Ocean Gold attorney Chris Kayser said the ruling shows Panner isn't "fond" of the case against Ocean Gold, which was added as a defendant in the suit.
"Obviously, the opinion he's written is a very good sign for us," Kayser said. "Certainly, Haglund loses a lot of momentum. He's really struggled to get much interest from fishermen."
Haglund said Panner's ruling doesn't indicate any faults with his case.
"We're a long way from the conclusion _ probably halfway through discovery," Haglund said. "I'm confident that we've got a very strong case."
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com