In an antitrust case involving bundled discount on sutures, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a lower court decision granting summary judgment in favor of defendants Cardinal Health 200, LLC and Owens & Micro Distribution, Inc. The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff-Appellant Suture Express, Inc. could not prove that the defendants individually possessed market power and that it had not demonstrated that defendants caused substantial adverse effects on competition.
- Suture Express, a distributor focused on the sale of sutures, sued Cardinal Health and Owens & Micro, which are national distributors of a broad array of medical-surgical products, claiming that they had engaged in illegal tying through their practice of bundling sutures with other medical-surgical products in a manner that penalized customers that purchased sutures from other suppliers.
- The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment and the lower court granted summary judgment to the defendants. The court held that Suture Express’ claims failed as a matter of law because it could not prove that the defendants individually possessed market power. The court also held that Suture Express could not meet the antitrust injury requirement because it had not shown that competition had been harmed.
- The Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling. On the issue of market power, the appellate court agreed with the lower courts’ findings that the defendants’ market shares on the alleged tying products (medical-surgical products excluding sutures) were relatively low (31 percent and 38 percent), there were many examples of customers switching to other distributors, and the defendants’ declining profit margins on medical-surgical products excluding sutures demonstrated that the defendants did not have the ability to control prices.
- With respect to antitrust injury, the Tenth Circuit stated that the antitrust laws are meant to protect competition, not individual competitors. The appellate court noted that despite the fact that roughly half of the market was not constrained by the bundling arrangement at issue, Suture Express accounted for a relatively small portion of this piece of the market. This raised the question of whether it was just Suture Express that was harmed as opposed to competition generally.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Establishing market power when defendants have relatively low market shares is difficult. While market shares in and of themselves are not determinative of whether market power exists, the courts give market shares significant weight and when evidence of low market shares is combined with the other factors the Tenth Circuit found here, it is difficult for a plaintiff to meet its burden.
- Vertical pricing arrangements that offer discounts to customers, even if associated with a bundling arrangement, are often viewed as procompetitive. A plaintiff has the difficult burden of showing that a defendant’s bundle creates anticompetitive effects that outweigh its procompetitive effects. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the arrangement caused harm not only to the plaintiff, but to competition as a whole. Even if a plaintiff finds it difficult to compete against a defendant’s bundle, if customers have shown that they are willing and able to switch from the defendant’s bundle, establishing harm to competition will be a challenge.