In an eye-popping verdict, a federal jury has ruled against Tyson Foods Inc. in a class-action suit brought by cattle producers. The jury, seated in Montgomery, Ala., agreed with class attorneys who argued that Tyson Foods had "fixed" market cattle prices from 1994 through 2002. They recommended the class be awarded $1.28 billion covering some 35,000 members.

The suit was first filed in 1996 against IBP (now Tyson Fresh Meats) by a group of cattlemen accusing the company of manipulating prices.

Tyson attorneys immediately said the company would request the judge set the verdict aside. The option of appeal is also on the table.

Tyson released a statement following the verdict. In part, it reads: "This is only a temporary legal setback. We will ask the judge to set aside the verdict. If he does not act, we intend to appeal and fully expect the jury's decision to be reversed by the 11th Court of Appeals...We do not expect today's jury decision to materially impair our liquidity or affect operations…We expect no appeal bond will be required."

According to published reports, class attorney Randy Beard (of Beard and Beard in Guntersville, Ala.,) said the jury found that Tyson's "conduct in manipulating and controlling the price it paid for cattle was in violation of an 80-year-old law…This should be considered an extraordinary day for cattle producers in this country."

Beard — calling the verdict "significant" — said the company, using contracts, "gained control" over a large percentage of the cattle supply. Beard alleges Tyson then used that control to affect the cash market.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com