By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK, Sept 30 (Reuters) – A federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit accusing Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc of violating antitrust law by using monopoly power to charge excessive prices on a sweet variety of pineapple.
Wednesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman rejected claims brought on behalf of retailers such as Publix Super Markets and Whole Foods Market Inc, as well as consumers, who bought the “Fresh Del Monte Gold” pineapples beginning in 1996.
The plaintiffs complained that Del Monte Fresh Produce Co, a unit of Fresh Del Monte, issued false and misleading “threat letters” to competitors that said its extra-sweet pineapple, described in court papers as “revolutionary,” was patented. They also said Del Monte threatened lawsuits against rivals that tried to sell the fruit and began “sham patent litigation,” in order to thwart competition and charge “supracompetitive prices for the Gold pineapples.”
Among those rivals alleged targeted by Del Monte were Dole Food Co and Maui Land & Pineapple Co, court papers show.
In a 43-page opinion, however, Berman said the purchasers failed to introduce enough evidence for a jury to conclude that Del Monte’s conduct, including the legal threats, “delayed competitors’ entry into the extra sweet pineapple market.”
He also accepted Del Monte’s argument that it had a legitimate business justification for its conduct, to “deter the theft” of “plant material” for the pineapple. Berman said this precludes liability for the “threat letters” under the Sherman Act, a U.S. antitrust law.
Lawyers for the pineapple purchasers and for Fresh Del Monte did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Based in Coral Gables, Florida, Fresh Del Monte went public in 1997. It is not affiliated with Del Monte Foods Co, a maker of canned, frozen and pet food.
The case is In re Fresh Del Monte Pineapples Antitrust Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan), No. 04-1628.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Richard Chang) Keywords: FRESHDELMONTE/PINEAPPLES LAWSUIT (firstname.lastname@example.org +1 646 223 6317; Reuters Messaging: jon
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