Ramen price-fixing class action headed for U.S. trial

(Reuters) - A federal judge in San Francisco has refused to dismiss antitrust class action litigation accusing two big South Korean ramen producers of conspiring to fix prices in the United States, clearing the way for a trial.

Nongshim Co's Shin ramen packages are seen at a grocery store in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, December 29, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

U.S. District Judge William Orrick on Thursday rejected efforts by market leader Nongshim Co and Ottogi Corp to dismiss claims brought by food retailers and distributors, and by consumers in 23 U.S. states and Washington, D.C.

Lawyers in the United States for Nongshim and Ottogi did not immediately respond on Friday to requests for comment. Mark Kindall, a lawyer for the consumers, said he was “obviously very pleased with the resolution and the judge’s determination that this case is ready to go to a jury.”

The plaintiffs accused ramen makers of coordinating six price increases from 2001 to 2008 in a scheme hatched at a meeting at the Renaissance Seoul Hotel, causing them to overpay for their noodles from early 2003 through January 2010.

In a 59-page decision, Orrick said there was “ample (although hotly disputed) evidence” that the defendants conspired to fix ramen prices in South Korea.

Although calling it a “much closer question,” Orrick found sufficient evidence that this alleged conspiracy affected ramen prices in the United States, including ramen made there.

“That there may have been minor differences (according to plaintiffs) between the products destined for the U.S. market and destined elsewhere does not, on this record, make the products so fundamentally different that the differences undermine plaintiffs’ ability to sue,” Orrick wrote.

A trial is scheduled for Feb. 23. The litigation began in 2013.

Ramen noodles are typically sold in packages, cups or bowls, with seasoning and dehydrated vegetables, to which consumers add boiling water.

In court papers, Nongshim and Ottogi have said they acted independently when setting prices.

They also accused the plaintiffs of improperly piggybacking off since-abandoned findings by the Korea Fair Trade Commission of a price-fixing conspiracy in South Korea.

Another Korean ramen maker, Samyang Foods Co, reached $1.5 million of settlements with the plaintiffs in 2016.

“We are pleased to have cleared the last hurdle before trial, and our clients look forward to presenting their case to a jury,” Christopher Lebsock, a lawyer for the retailers and distributors, said in an email.

The case is In re: Korean Ramen Antitrust Litigation, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 13-04115.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bill Trott