When U.S. District Judge Lyle Strom instructed the seven-women, five-man jury in Pickett vs. Tyson/IBP last Feb. 10, attorneys for the plaintiff-cattlemen sat in shock.
They listened as he undermined their eight-year fight to prove the world’s largest beef slaughterer had manipulated cash cattle prices.
What’s going on? Strom, thought the lawyers, mischaracterized the case to the jury.
“This was a Packers & Stockyards action,” said one, “but the judge’s instructions made it an antitrust case. We were stunned because we hadn’t presented an antitrust case.”
Some saw it coming. “I’m an old poker player,” says Sam Britt, a New Mexico cattleman who observed the trial, “and based on the judge’s questions during the trial and the way he told the jury to view the case, I thought we had the winning hand taken from us.”
A week later and against that seemingly stacked deck, however, the jury returned a guilty verdict against Tyson/IBP.
The evidence, it ruled, showed that beef’s Biggest Boy had used contracted and other captive cattle supplies to clip prices paid to its cash-only cattle sellers by 5 percent over eight years.
To set things right, the jury then awarded the 30,000 cattlemen in the class action lawsuit $1.28 billion.
Not so fast. Judge Strom may have been surprised by the jury, but he had a surprise for them. On March 23 he set aside the damage award.
Tyson attorneys weren’t done either. They appealed to have the decision tossed “as a matter of law” – in short, the jury hadn’t followed the judge’s instructions in reaching its decision – or they wanted a new trial with a new jury.
Jury’s fault. On April 23, Strom chose the former; the jury, he wrote in a 14-page “Memorandum Opinion,” had blown it.
He overturned the decision to give Tyson/IBP and all cattle-controlling meatpackers the green light to continue their consolidation, integration and alleged manipulation of the fed cattle market.
Choosing his words carefully, Strom wrote that the Tyson/IBP’s “use of captive supply arrangements is supported by (the) legitimate business justification of competing in the industry.”
In other words, if Tyson/IBP can’t contract cattle – and, in the process, claimed the cattlemen, manipulate price – it couldn’t compete with Big Beef’s other Big Boys, such as Cargill and ConAgra, for “a more reliable and efficient method of obtaining a supply of cattle.”
Jury of one. Funny thing is – and as evidence submitted during the trial by C. Robert Taylor, distinguished professor of ag economics at Auburn University showed – Judge Strom may have been the only one in the courtroom that bought Tyson/IBP’s claim that it had to contract to compete with other packers for a consistent supply of high quality cattle.
Taylor was the only expert witness to examine more than 1 million cattle transactions conducted by IBP between February 1994 and October 2002, the period when cattlemen claimed IBP was tinkering with the market.
He concluded that the company’s use of captive cattle not only failed to ensure a steady, uniform supply of cattle, the in-the-pocket fats were lower quality and higher priced.
In fact, Taylor testified, there was no legitimate business reason for IBP to contract cattle other than what its own data starkly revealed: Its use of captive supply drove down prices IBP paid to strictly cash cattle sellers.
Tyson/IBP’s own witnesses grudgingly confirmed Taylor’s analysis.
Confused? But Judge Strom evidently couldn’t make the distinction between P&S rules that prohibit even the whiff of price manipulation by packers and Sherman antitrust rules that force plaintiffs to prove actual lawbreaking.
In the end, he instructed the jury on antitrust law rather than P&S rules.
In the end, he ruled that his opinion counts more than that of 12 men and women who heard the same facts he heard.
In the end, he ruled that while justice is blind, some judges may be deaf.
And, in the end, he’ll have more chances to get it right. First, he’s the presiding judge in two more pending meatpacker price manipulation cases – one against Cargill, the other against ConAgra.
Then there’s the Pickett appeal which, if successful, lands right back in his black-robed lap later this year.
(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: AGuebert@worldnet.att.net.)
© 2004 ag comm