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Anheuser-Busch Inc. has won a defense verdict rejecting a $50 million federal antitrust claim brought by the family-owned beer distributorship established by late baseball legend Roger Maris. Plaintiff Maris Distributing Co. Inc. claimed that the brewer violated federal antitrust laws by prohibiting the wholesaler from selling itself to a publicly owned company. But an Ocala, Fla., jury found that the prohibition was not an unreasonable restraint of trade and awarded no damages. Anheuser-Busch still faces a trial in Florida state court on claims by the Maris Distributing Co. that Anheuser-Busch committed breach of contract by unilaterally terminating the distributorship’s contract. That trial is scheduled for next April, noted lead defense counsel Peter E. Moll of Washington, D.C.’s Howrey Simon Arnold & White. Roger Maris, famous for breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961 while with the New York Yankees, subsequently joined the St. Louis Cardinals, which was owned by Anheuser-Busch. After helping the Cardinals win the 1967 World Series, said Moll, Maris and his brother Rudy were awarded an Anheuser-Busch distributorship in the Ocala and Gainesville areas of Florida. Roger Maris’ brother, along with his nephews and sons, continued operating the family business after Roger’s death, said Moll. In 1996, the Maris family attempted to sell the distributorship “to various private parties. But they put a price on it that no one was willing to pay.” The company was prevented from selling out to the public or to a publicly owned company, Moll noted, by a clause in the contract with Anheuser-Busch. In January 1997, Maris Distributing filed an antitrust action against Anheuser-Busch, contending that the provision restricting public ownership constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade, in violation of Sec. I of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Maris Distributing Co. Inc. v. Anheuser-Busch Inc., No. 5:97-cv-15-OC-10 (M.D. Fla.). Two months after Maris filed the antitrust lawsuit, Anheuser-Busch terminated Maris Distributing’s contract with the brewery and sold the Maris territory to other distributors, Moll said. Maris did not receive any of this money. Maris Distributing then filed a separate lawsuit in Florida state court charging breach of contract. In the antitrust trial, Moll said, Maris Distributing contended “that the prohibition against public ownership had an adverse impact on competition.” But Anheuser-Busch countered, he said, that over the years the contract was in force, “beer prices were up less than the Consumer Price Index.” One of the most effective defense points came in the attack on the plaintiff’s claim for damages, Moll said: “They were claiming the value of the distributorship, if it was sold to the public, was $50 million more than a private purchaser would have paid.” But, he alleged, “their damages numbers were fabricated.” Before the contract was terminated, Anheuser-Busch had offered to buy the distributorship from Maris for $21 million, he reported. “They were looking for $60 million. By the time this got to trial, instead of $60 million, they said it was worth $73 million to a private buyer and $122 million to the public.” Anheuser-Busch contended that Maris was using the suit to get a higher price for the business. Under antitrust law, a verdict against the brewery would have been trebled to nearly $150 million, but after three hours of deliberations, the jury rejected the plaintiff’s claim. An appeal in the antitrust action is expected, said Moll. The plaintiff’s attorneys did not return calls for comment.

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