UST Faces $350 Million Damages in Suit
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Kentucky jury has ordered top chewing tobacco maker U.S. Tobacco Co. to pay $350 million in damages to rival Conwood Co. in a federal antitrust suit over U.S. Tobacco's marketing tactics, UST said on Wednesday.
The unanimous verdict against the maker of Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco products took tobacco industry observers by surprise at a time when headline-grabbing suits against cigarette makers in California and Florida dominate the sector's horizon. Shares of U.S. Tobacco parent UST Inc. dropped to their lowest level in a decade on Wednesday morning, before a slight rebound in afternoon trading. Greenwich, Conn.-based U.S. Tobacco said it would seek in the next 10 days to overturn the Paducah, Ky. jury's verdict, which UST said is subject to ``trebling'' under federal antitrust law.
``We continue to believe that our conduct did not violate the antitrust laws and intend to take all steps to have the award overturned or reversed on appeal,'' UST Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Vincent Gierer said in a statement.
While many analysts said they believed the amount of damages would ultimately be reduced, UST's share price was hurt by worries that the obligation to pay hefty damages would undermine UST's valuable share buyback program.
If the jury verdict stands, UST would have to issue a bond equal to the final amount to appeal the verdict -- an amount that could total $1.05 billion after trebling.
``That is a lot of money and it's very unlikely that UST would be able to continue with their share buyback program,'' said Bonnie Herzog, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston. ''Investors are attracted to UST because there is little litigation risk (compared to other major tobacco makers) and their share buyback program. ... Now those are gone and that's the big concern.''
Shares of UST Inc.,the parent of U.S. Tobacco which controls about 76 percent of the smokeless tobacco market, opened down 3 after the verdict, or more than 15 percent, to 16 3/8 on the New York Stock Exchange. It was the lowest share price for UST in nearly a decade. Shares edged higher to 16 15/16 in the afternoon.
Memphis, Tenn.-based Conwood, a distant No. 2 to UST with 13.4 percent of the U.S. smokeless tobacco business, had alleged in the suit, that UST had maintained its dominant position in the moist-smokeless tobacco segment through anti-competitive business practices. It also charged that UST tried to control point-of-sale advertising.
Officials for Conwood, the maker of Kodiak and Cougar chewing tobacco lines, could not be reached for comment.
Tobacco analyst Martin Feldman of Salomon Smith Barney echoed others in his belief that the judge would decrease the $350 million award as too severe for the antitrust violations alleged by Conwood.
``I am not convinced that the plaintiffs will be able to show that UST's alleged misconduct would have cost them $350 million dollars,'' Feldman said.
UST said in a statement that it and Conwood are in ``a highly competitive marketplace.'' But analysts noted that the verdict comes amid a general awareness of anti-trust issues due the Federal government's case against Microsoft played into Conwood's favor.
``UST compared to Conwood looks pretty large and may look like a monopoly, though legally it's not. ... But with the Microsoft case and the big company versus little company aspect of this case ... I have got to think that (awareness) played a role in the jury's decisions,'' Herzog said.
In addition to its chewing tobacco business, UST owns the Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Villa Mt. Eden wineries and produces the Don Tomas line of cigars.