HARRISBURG - Call it a sweet victory for Big Chocolate.
A federal judge ruled Wednesday in favor of the nation's largest candy makers in a price-fixing lawsuit filed by 22 supermarket and drug store chains.
U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner found that there was no evidence that Hershey Co., Mars Inc., and Nestle U.S.A. colluded to boost prices on candy bars.
The class-action suit, brought by chains including Rite Aid, CVS, Safeway, Giant Eagle, and Food Lion, alleged that the chocolate companies - which control 75 percent of the candy market - knowingly engaged in parallel price increases on single-sale candy bars.
The plaintiffs charged that the candy companies in 2002, 2004, and 2007 were in possession of one another's pricing information ahead of formal price increase announcements and replicated an arrangement by their related companies in Canada to tacitly agree to "follow in lockstep any list price increases initiated by competitors."
The ruling comes six months after a $23 million (Canadian) settlement in a price-fixing suit involving the candy makers' affiliated companies in Canada.
Conner found that while some price increases were nearly simultaneous, there was no evidence of illegality or a tie to the Canadian conspiracy. "Nothing scandalous or improper has been discovered within our borders and no evidence permits a reasonable inference of a price-fixing agreement," he wrote.
The case, heard in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, consolidated 91 cases brought in multiple federal jurisdictions.