* Judge dismisses long-running anti-trust lawsuit
* Plaintiffs contended Fresh Del Monte drove up prices
* Fresh Del Monte shares close down 15 cents (Adds comment by Fresh Del Monte lawyer, closing prices)
NEW YORK, Sept 30 (Reuters) - A federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit accusing Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc FDP.N 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 WFMI.O, as well as consumers, who bought the "Fresh Del Monte Gold" pineapples beginning in 1996.
“We are very gratified that after more than 5-1/2 years of litigation, Judge Berman correctly concluded that there was no basis to the plaintiffs’ claims that Del Monte acted improperly in bringing to market and selling its pineapple,” said Carlos Sires, a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who represented Del Monte.
A lawyer for the pineapple purchasers did not immediately return a request for comment.
The purchasers 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” 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.
Based in Coral Gables, Florida, Fresh Del Monte went public in 1997. It is not affiliated with Del Monte Foods Co DLM.N, a maker of canned, frozen and pet food.
Shares of Fresh Del Monte closed down 15 cents at $22.61 on the New York Stock Exchange.
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, Gary Hill)
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