- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - The state of Washington was not bound by a statute of limitations in filing an antitrust lawsuit against more than 20 foreign electronics manufacturers for alleged price-fixing, the state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The 7-2 ruling affirmed a lower court decision.

The state in 2012 filed a lawsuit against the electronics companies, contending that between 1995 through at least 2007, the defendants violated state law by engaging in price-fixing on cathode ray tubes, which dominated television and computer screens before the advent of LCD and other newer technology.

“Due to this unlawful conspiracy … Washington consumers and the State of Washington itself paid supercompetitive prices for CRT products,” the ruling said.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the state’s Consumer Protection Act required that lawsuits seeking damages must be filed within four years.

The state argued that the statute of limitations did not apply in this case, and that it was exempt from the statute of limitations in any event because it was seeking relief for the benefit of the state.

The trial judge denied the motion to dismiss. Later, a state Court of Appeals panel concluded that the statute of limitations did not apply.

The electronics companies then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Thursday’s ruling sent the case back to the trial court for resolution.

“The court recognized that we brought this case on behalf of the public, and it protected our ability to do that,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “When powerful interests don’t play by the rules, we hold them accountable.”

In a partial dissent, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen noted that the lawsuit was filed more than 17 years after the alleged price-fixing conspiracy began, and more than four years after the attorney general’s office learned about it. They concluded that should bar the state from seeking damages.

“When the state seeks to collect on private claims against private entities for the benefit of private parties, the result is less clear as to whether such cases are ‘for the benefit of the state,’ ” they wrote.

In a separate case, the state announced last year that it had reached a $63 million agreement with nine LCD manufacturers accused of fixing prices for products ranging from flat-screen televisions to computers and cellphones. Ferguson called it one of the largest recoveries in state history by his office’s antitrust division.

Ferguson said he intends to pursue a similar restitution process for the CRT purchases at issue in Thursday’s ruling.

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