Apple appears headed for a high-stakes trial as the only remaining defendant in the U.S. government’s e-books antitrust case. As such, that could significantly increase the company’s liability in the litigation.
Apple faces a June 3 trial date over civil allegations by the U.S. Department of Justice that it conspired with five publishers to raise the price of e-books and to fight the dominance of Amazon.com Inc.
On Friday, Macmillan became the fifth and final publisher to settle with the government. The Justice Department alleges that Apple came to agreements with each of the publishers meant to ensure that e-book prices at its iBookstore and other retailers would remain higher than those offered by Amazon.com.
Court papers reveal that the Justice Department will seek not monetary damages at the trial, to be overseen by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote in Manhattan, but a judicial decree that Apple violated antitrust law.
Government counsel will be asking the judge to issue an order enjoining Apple from engaging in any conduct similar to that alleged in the case. That could make Apple vulnerable to steep damages in any related litigation.
Apple and the publishers also face a class-action suit filed on behalf of consumers and a similar suit filed by dozens of state attorneys general.
It has been estimated by the Consumer Federation of America that e-book price fixing would likely cost consumers more than $200 million in 2012. State and federal antitrust laws allow plaintiffs to recover treble damages established at trial.
A loss to the Justice Department by Apple would put those plaintiffs in a “powerful position” to win their cases, according to Harry First, a professor at New York University School of Law specializing in antitrust.
By contrast, if Apple were to prevail, it would cause “a lot more trouble” for the plaintiffs in the other cases, First said.
Apple has declined to comment, as it may still settle with the U.S. government.