ROCKLAND, Maine -- The future of Maine's blueberry industry was unclear after a judge signed off on triple damages against Maine's wild blueberry processors, for a total of $56 million.
In November, wild blueberry growers won $18.6 million in a class-action lawsuit against three processors they accused of price fixing. Damage awards are automatically tripled in civil cases involving antitrust issues.
The processors appealed, but Justice Joseph Jabar gave a final signoff on Friday during a two-hour hearing in Knox County Superior Court.
The processors are Allen's Blueberry Freezer of Ellsworth, Jasper Wyman & Son of Milbridge, and Cherryfield Foods Inc. of Cherryfield.
Cherryfield Foods attorney William Kayatta Jr. of Portland tried to persuade Jabar to set aside the verdict.
"The judgment itself, $18.6 million, by any stretch is a staggering amount in relation to the companies," Kayatta said.
He said the processors plan to appeal the case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
"It is not in the public interest to have an entire industry that is subject to such a judgment. Practically speaking, we are talking bankruptcy even if you look at the $18.6 million," Kayatta said.
Grower Nathan Pease said his intention in starting the lawsuit more than three years ago was merely the pursuit of fairness.
"I didn't do this to put anyone out of business," he said. "All we growers want is to be treated fairly. We want the processors to make money. But we want that to happen fairly."
James Kilbreth, a lawyer representing Wyman's, disagreed.
"Today made it clear that the growers' focus is getting as many dollars out of the processors as they can," he said. "They want to pin down and freeze the industry."
The November judgment was for what the jury thought the growers were shortchanged by the processors' alleged conspiracy to set field prices over four seasons in the late 1990s. The 500 Maine growers represented in the class-action lawsuit charged that the three processors conspired to depress prices. The processors have denied any price fixing.
The growers' attorneys said the $56 million needs to be disbursed among all the growers represented in the suit. The judge asked them to submit a proposal for how the claims process should be handled.