Lawyers, fish processors get bulk of fish suit settlement

Some 4,500 fishermen to receive an estimated average of $2,145 each

Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE - About 4,500 commercial fishermen will receive an estimated average of $2,145 each as part of a $40 million settlement fund generated in the Bristol Bay salmon antitrust case.

Lawyers and fish processors will get about three-quarters of the money.

As part of an agreement to wrap up the eight-year class-action case, lawyers for the fishermen have agreed not to appeal their May trial loss.

Jurors in Superior Court in Anchorage heard nearly four months of testimony before finding against fishermen who contended that U.S. and Japanese seafood companies had conspired to shortchange them on their catches at Bristol Bay, home of the world's largest sockeye fishery.

The fishermen had sought more than $1 billion in damages.

Under terms of the agreement, lawyers for the fishermen and the companies would recoup about $30 million in legal fees and expenses from a $40 million pot of money generated by the fishermen's civil suit. The money came from other seafood companies that paid a settlement to bow out of the case prior to the jury's verdict.

About $9.7 million would be left over for fishermen. Their estimated average payment would be $2,145. The specific amounts will be based on the amount of fish each caught during the 1989-1995 seasons.

The fishermen could receive checks in their mailboxes by the middle of next year, said Parker Folse, a Seattle attorney for the fishermen.

The plan to divide the settlement pot is subject to Judge Peter Michalski's approval. A court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 4.

The fishermen's lawyers are requesting $12 million in hourly fees plus $4.5 million in expenses, while the seafood companies and their lawyers are asking for $13.8 million.

Those sums won't come close to fully compensating either side for years of work and millions in expenses, Folse said.

"The $40 million fund wouldn't even exist without the work we did," Folse said. "There are plenty of class actions where the lawyers make out like bandits. This is a case where even if we got every nickel we asked for, we're still going to be significantly under water."

Ralph Palumbo, a lawyer for Trident Seafoods Corp., said the agreement "will end the case and repay Trident and the other defendants a small part of the money they spent to defend themselves. Now it's time for fishermen to work with processors to rebuild Bristol Bay."

The seafood companies might not have been entitled to anything from the settlement fund had the Alaska Legislature not passed a bill this year making defendants in antitrust cases eligible for court-awarded fees and costs if they win.

The bill, brought to legislators during the trial by another of Trident's lawyers, irked the fishermen's legal team because it meant less money for the fishermen and their attorneys.

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