Appeals court upholds Oklahoma poultry suit verdict

Tulsa World
By: KEN MILLER Associated Press
Oct. 20, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY - A federal appeals court has upheld a $14.5 million judgment against an Arkansas poultry company in a lawsuit filed by Oklahoma poultry farmers.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver voted unanimously to reject the appeal by O.K. Industries of Fort Smith, which contracts with various "growers" who raise chickens for the company.

An attorney for O.K. Industries did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

The class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of roughly 300 southeastern Oklahoma poultry growers in 2002 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma in Muskogee, accused the company of using its economic power as the only poultry buyer in the area to decrease the price it paid them to raise chickens.

A federal jury in 2008 found in favor of the growers and awarded them $21.1 million, an amount that was lowered to $14.5 million by the judge in the case.

"We are extremely satisfied to see this legal battle end in a victory for our clients, supporting the jury's determination that O.K. Industries had mistreated Oklahoma farmers," said Charles B. Goodwin, an attorney for the growers.

A method for distributing the proceeds of the settlement among the growers has not been adopted by the court, according to Goodwin.

On appeal, O.K. Industries argued that the growers failed to prove that the company engaged in unfair practices, that its actions injured consumers, or that it had sufficient power to manipulate the market.

The appeal also alleged a lack of evidence to support all theories of liability, that the jury was not instructed on the statute of limitations, and that the district court erroneously admitted expert testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The company asked that the jury's verdict be overturned and the case be sent back to district court for a new trial.

The appeals court rejected all of those arguments in its ruling last week.

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