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Beer Drinkers Challenge Anheuser Buyout

Thu, 09/11/2008 - 1:07pm
Christopher Leonard, AP Business Writer

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Ten angry beer drinkers are trying to derail the largest brewery takeover in history.

The group filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday claiming Belgium-based InBev's $52 billion purchase of Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. would violate U.S. antitrust law if completed as planned in the coming months.

The suit, filed in Anheuser-Busch's hometown of St. Louis, does not seek financial damages but asks a judge to block the deal. The Department of Justice often reviews large acquisitions to determine if they are legal under U.S. law. But attorneys behind the lawsuit said they want to halt the deal regardless of the verdict in Washington.

"The Justice Department can do whatever they want. They have no absolutely no effect on private actions," said Joseph Alioto, the lead attorney in the case. He declined to say Wednesday who was funding the lawsuit.

Anheuser-Busch did not return a call seeking comment about the lawsuit Wednesday. Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona would not confirm or deny whether the agency is reviewing the case.

InBev's proposed purchase of Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser, Michelob and other brands, was met with a wave or legal challenges when first announced this summer. Shareholders filed more than a dozen lawsuits, some trying to stop the deal, others trying to hasten it. Anheuser-Busch even sued InBev before it accepted the offer, characterizing the bid as an illegal scheme.

InBev Chief Executive Carlos Brito said this summer the deal wouldn't violate U.S. antitrust law because InBev is a niche player in the United States, selling brands like Stella Artois and Beck's. Brito said adding InBev's portfolio to Anheuser-Busch's roughly 50 percent market share would not make a sizable difference in the company's U.S. market dominance.

The suit filed Tuesday challenges the deal's legality on different grounds. It says the merged brewery, to be called Anheuser-Busch InBev, would have a monopoly over beer production in the United States. The lawsuit argues that combining two of the world's biggest breweries will reduce competition.

"If InBev is allowed to purchase Anheuser-Busch, there no longer would be any significant major potential competitor to influence pricing and marketing practices in the United States." the suit says.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are listed as 10 individuals who drink Anheuser-Busch and would be affected if the company raised prices.

Barry Ginsburg said he joined the suit because he is worried how the deal might affect his hometown of St. Louis. He said plaintiffs in the case care about more than paying a little extra for their beer.

"This is bigger than us," Ginsburg said. "We all have a pretty good idea what happens when people have a monopoly, and when it's a foreign company that has a monopoly."

Alioto is also suing to stop the proposed acquisition by Delta Air Lines Inc. of Northwest Airlines Corp. In that case, he represents a group of passengers who claim the deal would violate antitrust law.

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