CHICAGO -- Attorneys representing area consumers plan to appeal a judge's ruling that exonerated the city's top two retailers of conspiring to fix milk prices.
The retailers were Jewel-Osco, a division of Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; and Dominick's Finer Foods, owned by Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.
Cook County Circuit Court judge John Morrissey found "there were no facts owing to agreements, handshakes or conversations about the price of milk" in dismissing the suit, brought on behalf of family members of the law firm Rock, Fusco & Garvey.
"We were very disappointed, especially for the consumers of Chicago. The ruling was not consistent with the objectives of the Illinois Antitrust Act," said Andy Hale, the attorney who represented family members. "He said we hadn't shown the elements of conspiracy, but I believe all those elements were proven."
Industry statistics indicate the two chains control nearly two-thirds of the market area in which they operate. The class-action lawsuit alleged Dominick's and Jewel-Osco conspired to fix milk prices between 1996 and 2000, and sought up to $125 million in damages.
Hale told SN the firm planned to appeal the lower-court decision to the Appellate Court of Illinois, first district, within the 30-day deadline.
In his written opinion, the judge stated that "it is not illegal to want to make a profit in the sale of any goods, including milk." Shifting the focus, he noted consumers have other outlets to shop if they object to the milk prices offered by the defendants. Or they could organize a boycott and petition the retailers to lower prices.
Even though there were indications of "parallel" pricing between the two chains, it was apparent only during certain times and on certain grades of milk, he concluded. In short, there was no "clear and convincing" evidence of collusion.
"If their milk prices are out of line, the remedy is a seasoned campaign of consumers doing the things this court has said, and not an action at law," Morrissey wrote.
"The sound and fury of this lawsuit echoes well on their corporate ears. Let us hope that they heard," he added, hinting that the retailers could enhance their public image outside of the courtroom by lowering prices. Representatives for the supermarket chains declined to speculate on the judge's suggestion.
Wynona Redmond, spokeswoman for Dominick's, said the retailer has always maintained there was never any price-fixing going on.
"Every day we work at providing the best quality, selection and price for our customers, and we will continue to do that," she said. "It's an everyday goal for us."
At Jewel-Osco, Lauri Sanders, spokeswoman, said the decision vindicates the chain's current policy, which is customer-driven.