PORTLAND (AP) – A Hancock County blueberry processor turned down an offer to settle a class-action lawsuit for $1 million, but could be on the hook for 35 times that amount if its appeals fail.

Allen’s Blueberry Freezer Inc. of Ellsworth rejected an offer to pay blueberry growers $200,000 a year for five years to settle the lawsuit. Two others, Cherryfield Foods Inc. and Jasper Wyman & Son, agreed to settle for combined cash payments of $4 million and an agreement on new pricing methods.

On Friday, attorneys told the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that by turning down the $1 million offer, Allen’s could find itself liable for $35 million.

Robert Keach, an attorney for Allen’s, said his client is willing to roll the dice because it is confident it will win its appeal. Even if it doesn’t win, the company feels that claims by growers won’t come anywhere close to that amount, he added.

Keach said more than 200 blueberry growers who were part of the lawsuit against processors have publicly said they will not participate in the claims process.

The payout, he said, “will be lucky to reach six figures, let alone seven.”

About 600 blueberry growers won a price-fixing lawsuit last year against the three processors, who handle about 95 percent of the state’s crop. A jury concluded that the processors illegally conspired to fix prices, costing growers $18.68 million over a four-year period.

That figure was automatically tripled to $56 million because it was an antitrust case.

Jasper Wyman & Son and Cherryfield Foods agreed Thursday to a settlement with growers, but the deal was rejected by Allen’s.

Keach appeared in court Friday arguing that attachments that growers have placed on Allen’s assets should be lifted because the judgment has not been finalized in the courts.

Attorneys for Cherryfield Foods and Jasper Wyman & Son said they will soon be filing a motion asking the court to postpone further proceedings until the settlement is approved in Superior Court.

Attorneys for the growers and processors told justices the actual damages to growers were about $13 million; the $18 million figure was the amount handled by processors from all sources, including Canadian growers, not just the plaintiffs.

The final damages, therefore, would total about $39 million after being tripled.

And if Allen’s fails in its appeals, it could find itself liable for $35 million – the $39 million in damages minus the $4 million that Wyman and Cherryfield Foods agreed to pay in the settlement.

Keach said it doesn’t matter what the payout would be once it exceeds a certain figure because Allen’s wouldn’t be able to pay and would have to go into bankruptcy.

The complexity of the case was not lost on the justices.

“Speaking for myself, and I think for my colleagues, if the case is resolved we will not be disappointed,” Justice Robert Clifford said.

AP-ES-02-13-04 1657EST



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