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Berry growers slow to file in settlement

ROCKLAND, Maine -- Fewer than 200 blueberry growers have filed claims for a portion of a $5 million settlement in a landmark price-fixing lawsuit.

That number was disclosed Tuesday as Justice Joseph Jabar put his signature on the final piece of the settlement.

The case is nearing an end following the agreement by Allen's Blueberry Freezer of Ellsworth to pay $1 million as its share of the settlement.

The most startling moment in the courtroom, however, was the disclosure that just 176 growers statewide have filed claims for a cut of the settlement, minus the attorneys' traditional one-third cut.

The growers' attorneys had said throughout the four years of the case that as many as 800 growers could have been damaged by the price-fixing.

William Robitzek, a Lewiston attorney who represented some of the growers, said he can't control which growers file claims.

''The pool of growers gets smaller once you peel off those who opted out of the suit in the beginning," he said. ''Then there are growers who are still scared to death to be identified with this lawsuit, because the list of payouts will be published."

Growers who can show how many pounds of fruit they sold in each of the seasons between 1996 and 1999 have until Dec. 23 to file their paperwork and join the claimants.

Now only formalities remain before growers begin recovering their losses, incurred during the years when processors colluded on the prices they would pay for the fruit each August.

The case, Maine's first-ever class-action lawsuit, was decided last November when a civil jury awarded an $18.6 million judgment against Allen's, Cherryfield Foods of Cherryfield, and Jasper Wyman & Son of Milbridge.

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