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Columbia Metal Culvert Co. v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp.

argued: February 22, 1978.



Adams and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges, and Markey,*fn* Chief Judge of the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.

Author: Adams

ADAMS, Circuit Judge.

Antitrust litigation seldom partakes of elegant simplicity. Its elaborations find expression both in the intricacies of finely woven legal theory and in the expansiveness of painstakingly detailed factual submissions. In the face of such complexity, considerable value attaches to efforts by the trial judge to confine the task of the jury to manageable dimensions by the judicious use of directed verdicts. Nonetheless, the Seventh Amendment guarantees a party the right to commit the task of determining facts in civil proceedings to a jury. And the difficulties of deciphering the import of extensive and conflicting evidence may not be allowed to disturb the exercise of that right.

In the matter before us, the resolution of charges of antitrust violations in the market for aluminum culvert pipe turns on disputed factual issues of conspiracy, motive, and market definition. The trial judge, however, deemed it appropriate to enter a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff's case. We are now called upon to determine whether the extensive trial record permitted such an action.


1. The Parties

This proceeding arose out of the interaction of five entities: Columbia Metal Culvert Company, Inc. (the plaintiff), Kaiser Aluminum & Sales, Inc. (KACSI), Kaiser Aluminum Chemical Corporation (KACC), Robert Kennedy, and Kennedy Culvert & Supply Company.

The plaintiff in this case originated in 1959, when Joseph Bonjourno founded Columbia Steel, a corporation that was to fabricate metal culvert pipes used in highway construction. Three years later, after some financial difficulties, Columbia was reconstituted as Columbia Metal Culvert, the current plaintiff. Columbia Metal's plant in Vineland, New Jersey, specialized in the manufacture of aluminum culvert pipes, which the company then marketed.

KACC and its wholly owned subsidiary, KACSI, constitute the second alignment in the case. KACC manufactures aluminum sheet and coil, from which aluminum culvert pipe, such as Columbia's product is constructed; it then conveys these pipes to KACSI, at a "transfer price" which is not necessarily reflective of either costs or market price. KACSI in turn sells the sheet and coil to pipe fabricators such as Columbia. In addition, KACSI fabricates and sells aluminum culvert pipe itself in competition with the fabricators to whom it supplies sheet and coil. KACSI sells 80% of the aluminum culvert pipe in the United States, although only 79% of its pipe output is aluminum (the rest being steel). Neither of the other large aluminum producers manufactures aluminum culvert.

The third set of parties before us is comprised of Kennedy Culvert & Supply Company, a distributor of KACSI culvert pipe in Southern New Jersey, and its owner, Robert Kennedy, a former salesman for Columbia Metal.

2. Background of Dispute

In earlier times, the parties had enjoyed a close business relationship. Columbia's decision in 1962 to begin producing aluminum culvert was encouraged by KACC and KACSI, who supplied technical assistance, as well as all of Columbia's raw materials. Columbia was one of the few strictly aluminum culvert manufacturers in the country and KACSI manifested an interest in using Columbia as a spearhead to break into the culvert market - a market which had previously been dominated by steel and concrete products. In these amicable years, Robert Kennedy was one of the most successful of Columbia's salesmen.

The core of Columbia's antitrust claim is that in 1971, when Columbia decided to place some of its aluminum orders with Reynolds Aluminum, KACSI determined to put Columbia out of business in retaliation. After learning of the errant orders, the evidence reveals, KACSI refused to sell aluminum to Columbia.*fn1 In addition, Columbia alleges that in an act of vengeance for Columbia's infidelity, KACSI decided, with KACC's approval, to locate a new culvert manufacturing plant in New Castle, Delaware, within fifty miles of Columbia's plant in Vineland, New Jersey, despite the fact that KACSI's new production unit had earlier been slated for Virginia. Because of the high cost of transporting culvert, there is evidence that the Delaware location meant that Columbia would become subject to severe new competition from KACSI culvert.

At the same time, Columbia maintains, KACSI conspired with Robert Kennedy, still a Columbia salesman, to set Kennedy up in business as an independent distributor of KACSI products in the Vineland area, and thereby to complete the destruction of Columbia's market. Columbia charges that Kennedy used confidential knowledge he had gained from his work with Columbia to underbid Columbia, and that Kennedy and KACSI conspired to avoid competing with one another.

Finally, Columbia claims that it was the victim of a price squeeze consciously engineered by KACSI and KACC to drive independent fabricators such as Columbia out of business. Sheet and coil were transferred from KACC to KACSI below cost, enabling KACSI to make a "profit" on sales of aluminum pipe at prices too low to be matched by independents who had to buy their sheet and coil at market prices. Simultaneously, it is claimed, KACSI, with KACC's concurrence, contrived to raise the price of raw materials confronting Columbia.

As a result of these maneuvers, Columbia asserts, it was driven out of business.

3. The Litigation

In 1974, Columbia brought the present law suit, which charges Kennedy, KACSI, and KACC with violations of §§ 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act. In addition, the complaint alleges that KACSI is guilty of an infraction of § 3 of the Clayton Act by its attempt to insist that Columbia deal exclusively with KACSI for coil and sheet.

After the jury had heard the twelve days of testimony comprising the plaintiff's case, the trial judge directed a verdict for the defendants on all of Columbia's claims. Judge Cahn held:

1. The evidence "tended to establish" that the relevant market in the case was not, as Columbia contended, a market for aluminum culvert, of which KACSI controlled 80%, but a market for both steel and aluminum culvert, where KACSI sales represented less than 10%.*fn2

2. As a result, KACC/KACSI could not be guilty of monopolization in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Act since they possessed no monopoly power in the relevant market.

3. Neither could KACC/KACSI be guilty of attempted monopolization since the limited market position precluded a "dangerous probability of success."

4. KACC, KACSI and Kennedy could not be liable for conspiracy to monopolize, on the ground that insufficient evidence had been adduced for a jury to find either specific intent to monopolize or a conspiracy to monopolize in the relevant product market.

5. A jury could not find KACC and KACSI guilty of a conspiracy or combination in restraint of trade under § 1 of the Sherman Act, since not enough evidence had been presented to allow a reasonable inference or conspiracy between KACSI and KACC, and because the market share was too small to allow a finding of restraint of trade.

6. Kennedy and KACSI could not be held liable for conspiracy in restraint of trade because there was inadequate evidence to allow a jury to find a conspiracy between Kennedy and KACSI, a substantial restraint of trade, or an intent to put Columbia out of business.

7. The failure to present evidence on the proper definition of the market for the Clayton Act claim precluded a finding in ...

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