U.S. Judge Approves StarKist Tuna Can Settlement

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Class action lawsuit against company for under filling cans

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, July 30, 2015) – A federal judge in California has granted preliminary approval of a class action settlement agreement in which Pittsburgh-based StarKist Co., whose local operation is StarKist Samoa cannery, will pay $12 million to settle a suit filed against the canned tuna company.

As previously reported by Samoa News, California resident Patrick Hendricks filed in February 2013 a complaint against StarKist, who was accused of "negligent misrepresentation", "unjust enrichment", violating California consumer laws, and "fraud" with allegations that StarKist has been under-filling its canned tuna products.

StarKist rejected the suit and sought for its dismissal without success. The two parties also attended two separate settlement conferences, but also without success until May this year when the two sides agreed to a preliminary settlement agreement, which was subject to court approval.

Plaintiff filed a motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement and plan of allocation. Although the defendant was a "joinder" in the plaintiff’s motion, StarKist filed its own separate motion seeking preliminary court approval but denied all allegations in the lawsuit.

After hearing oral arguments from both sides several week ago, U.S. District Court Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr., at the federal court in San Francisco issued last week Friday a 15-page order granting the plaintiff’s motion of preliminary approval.

In full settlement of the claims asserted in this lawsuit, StarKist agrees to pay $8 million in cash and $4 million in vouchers for StarKist products the order states, and noted that this amount includes payments to claimants for release of their claims, any award of attorneys’ fees and costs, claims administrator costs, and any incentive awards to Hendricks and other "interested parties", according to Gilliam’s order.

Plaintiff proposes that claimants be permitted to elect either a $25 payment from the cash settlement fund or a $50 payment in StarKist vouchers from the voucher settlement fund. Additionally, plaintiff’s counsel estimates that—after attorneys’ fees and costs, claim administrator costs, and incentive awards are deducted from the cash portion of the settlement fund—the claims administrator would need to receive approximately 120,000 "cash claims".

The settlement agreement defines the settlement class to include all residents of the United States who, from February 19, 2009 through October 31, 2014, purchased any of the StarKist Products (i.e. 5 oz. Chunk Light in Water, 5 oz. Chunk Light in Oil, 5 oz. Solid White in Water, and 5 oz. Solid White in Oil.)

Not made clear in the agreement and other accompanying court documents is whether residents of the U.S. includes those from the U.S. territories.

According to the court order, Hendricks is entitled to receive $5,000 for his role as the named plaintiff in the lawsuit.

In granting preliminary approval, Gilliam also instructed both sides to submit a proposed schedule for, among other things, completion of dissemination of notice to class action members and deadline for submission of claim forms.

Both sides filed a response yesterday proposing Sept. 25 this year as the deadline to complete the dissemination of notice and Nov. 20 as deadline for submission of claim forms. The parties also proposed that the court hold a "Final Fairness" hearing on Dec. 17.

STARKIST

Although StarKist joined the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary approval of the settlement, the defendant said in court filings that StarKist:

"StarKist’s joinder also should not be construed as StarKist’s agreement with or admission to the truth of the factual assertions or the legal arguments or conclusions in Plaintiff’s Motion or documents filed in support thereof" in this case, the defendant says.

StarKist believes that the "settlement is fair and reasonable to the settlement class and...complies with requirements for proper class action settlements," according to the defendant, who maintains that "there is no evidence that any significant number of StarKist purchasers believed they received an inadequate amount of tuna or in fact received ‘under filled’ cans."

It says that a survey of consumers of StarKist 5 oz. cans of tuna purchased during the proposed class period revealed over 90% of respondents had satisfaction levels of 4 or 5 on a scale from 1 to 5 (where a 5 meant "very satisfied").

"Overall, the survey strongly supported the conclusion that no material percentage of StarKist consumers believed they received too little tuna when buying StarKist products, or had in any way been shortchanged or cheated in their purchase," StarKist argued.

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