A federal jury in Illinois ordered $17.7 million in damages — an amount tripled to more than $53 million under federal law — to be paid to several food manufacturing companies who had sued major egg producers over a conspiracy to limit the egg supply in the U.S.
The jury ruled last week that the egg producers used various means to limit the domestic supply of eggs to increase the price of products during the 2000s. The time frame of the conspiracy was an issue throughout the case; jurors ultimately determined the actions at issue occurred between 2004 and 2008.
The damages verdict was reached Friday in the Northern District of Illinois. According to federal antitrust law, the damages are automatically tripled, bringing the total to more than $53 million. Court documents on the verdict were not readily available Friday evening, but statements from the manufacturers' attorney and one of the egg producers confirmed a total of about $17.7 million.
"We are extremely grateful for the jury's service and findings," Brandon Fox, an attorney representing the food manufacturers, said in a statement. "This was an important case for many reasons, and the jury's award recognizes its significance."
Attorneys for the four egg suppliers named in the lawsuit did not immediately return phone messages on Friday. Court documents show the defendants have denied the claims.
The egg suppliers include the family company of its former chairman, John Rust, who's running for the U.S. Senate in Indiana. In a written statement on the verdict, Rust said the jury's decision "will be appealed."
The jury found that the egg suppliers exported eggs abroad to reduce the overall supply in the domestic market, as well as limited the number of chickens through means including cage space, early slaughter and flock reduction, court documents say.
Jurors were specifically told not to consider more recent changes in egg pricing during their deliberations.
Food manufacturers joining as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the egg producers are Kraft Foods Global Inc., Kellogg Co., General Mills Inc. and Nestle USA Inc.
The jury found the egg suppliers who participated in the conspiracy were Cal-Maine Foods Inc., United Egg Producers Inc., United States Egg Marketers Inc. and Rose Acre Farms Inc., a southern Indiana company previously chaired by Rust.
Rose Acre Farms, which identifies itself as the second-largest egg producer in the U.S., disagreed with the jury's verdict in a written statement.
"Rose Acre has and continues to steadfastly deny being part of any anti-competitive egg price-fixing conspiracy, and we will continue to explore and consider all legal options, including post-trial relief and appeal," the statement said.
Cal-Maine Foods said in a written statement it has petitioned the court to rule in its favor and will continue to evaluate its options, "including, if necessary, an appeal."
"Cal-Maine Foods respects the jury's decision and appreciates that the damages awarded by the jury are relatively modest compared to the damages sought but remains disappointed with the verdict as Cal-Maine Foods continues to believe that the company did nothing wrong," the statement said.
Emails sent to the United Egg Producers and United States Egg Marketers representatives were not immediately returned Friday.