The suit claimed Tyson/IBP used captive cattle supplies to manipulate and control prices.
Of course, the legal wrangling in
Pickett vs. IBP
is far from over. Tyson has already asked the judge to set aside the verdict. And, in any event, the case will be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Thus, the final resolution may be a year or two away.
It's important to note that the $1.28-billion figure isn't a damage award as is often stated, but a jury recommendation. That sum, which covers approximately 35,000 producers, equates to about $36,000 per covered producer.
The majority of cattlemen heralded the news as a major victory. They hope the decision represents the beginning of constraints on packers from exercising what they believe is packers' excessive market power and market leverage.
Of course, if the Tyson ruling is upheld on appeal, suits against Excel, Swift, etc., will be soon in coming. Some in the industry are comparing this case to the tobacco settlement in terms of its industry significance. Once the tobacco companies lost their first case, it was just a matter of time before they lost a flood of similar cases.
However, there remain legitimate questions about the verdict and whether it will survive appeal. For one, it was a very complex case, with a lot of conflicting economic theory and data presented throughout the trial. But, many legal analysts contend the jury's decision wasn't based so much on the facts as it was a reflection of current attitudes toward corporate America in the wake of scandals involving corporate greed.
Of course, the decision isn't without its detractors from the producer side. As one producer put it, "I'm half smiling and half nervous."
The detractors have several legitimate concerns. The first is that the decision will, in effect, stop many of the marketing arrangements producers have created, and will have a chilling effect on the move to branded products and value-added forms of production. Secondly, there's concern the verdict will encourage lawsuits on any type of marketing arrangement, resulting in locking the industry into a commodity marketplace forever.
Regardless of the final outcome, it will take several years to fully understand what the results will be for the industry.
Will the plaintiffs prevail against the packing industry? What will be the amount of damages if the ruling is upheld? How much will producers receive and how much will the lawyers take? What will be the ruling's effect on future marketing arrangements and the packing industry's willingness to enter into them?
This week's jury decision is likely to be a double-edged sword. The packing industry likely will be more cautious about entering into marketing arrangements that might be interpreted as having negative market effects, while producers wishing to sell outside of a commodity market (where packers hold the decidedly better hand) will be forever limited. Plus, this decision is likely to shift considerable risk back on to producers as they are forced to trade the daily cash market.
Not surprisingly, the two sides have drastically different takes on evidence provided at the trial. Tyson is convinced the data proved that supply and demand affect prices, and that legitimate business reasons exist for such marketing arrangements from both the packer and producer perspectives. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs say the ruling proves packers have utilized captive supplies to drive prices lower.
Regardless of which side of the fence you stand, this ruling is likely to move captive supply back to the front burner, and validate the process of using the courts for a remedy.