410 U.S. 526 (1973), 71-873, United States v. Falstaff Brewing Corp.

Docket Nº:No. 71-873
Citation:410 U.S. 526, 93 S.Ct. 1096, 35 L.Ed.2d 475
Party Name:United States v. Falstaff Brewing Corp.
Case Date:February 28, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

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410 U.S. 526 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 1096, 35 L.Ed.2d 475

United States


Falstaff Brewing Corp.

No. 71-873

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 28, 1973

Argued October 17, 1972




Respondent Falstaff, the Nation's fourth largest beer producer, which was desirous of achieving national status, agreed to acquire the largest seller of beer in the New England market rather than enter de novo. The District Court dismissed the Government's resultant suit charging violation of § 7 of the Clayton Act, finding that entry by acquisition, which the court found was the only way that respondent intended to penetrate the New England market, would not result in a substantial lessening of competition.

Held: The District Court erred in assuming that, because respondent would not have entered the market de novo, it could not be considered a potential competitor. The court should have considered whether respondent was a potential competitor in the sense that its position on the edge of the market exerted a beneficial influence on the market's competitive conditions. Pp. 531-538.

332 F.Supp. 970, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., joined, and in Part I of which DOUGLAS, J., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, post, p. 538. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post p. 545. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEWART, J., joined, post, p. 572. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the decision of the case. POWELL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

[93 S.Ct. 1098] Alleging that Falstaff Brewing Corp.'s acquisition of the Narragansett Brewing Co. in 1965 violated § 7 of the Clayton Act, 38 Stat. 731, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 18,1 the United States brought this antitrust suit under the theory that potential competition in the New England beer market may be substantially lessened by the acquisition. The District Court held to the contrary, 332 F.Supp. 970 (1971), and we noted probable jurisdiction2 to determine whether the trial court applied an erroneous legal standard in so deciding, 405 U.S. 952 (1972). We remand to the District Court for a proper assessment of Falstaff as a potential competitor.

As stipulated by the parties, the relevant product market is the production and sale of beer, and the six New England States3 compose the geographic market. While beer sales in New England increased approximately 9.5% in the four years preceding the acquisition, the eight largest sellers increased their share of these sales from approximately 74% to 81.2%. In 1960, approximately 50% of the sales were made by the four largest sellers; by 1964, their share of the market was 54%; and,

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by 1965, the year of acquisition, their share was 61.3%. The number of brewers operating plants in the geographic market decreased from 32 in 1935, to 11 in 1957, to six in 1964.4

Of the Nation's 10 largest brewers in 1964, only Falstaff and two others did not sell beer in New England; Falstaff was the largest of the three, and had the closest brewery.5 In relation to the New England market, Falstaff sold its product in western Ohio, to the west and in Washington, D.C. to the south.

The acquired firm, Narragansett, was the largest seller of beer in New England at the time of its acquisition, with approximately 20% of the market; had been the largest seller for the five preceding years; had constantly expanded its brewery capacity between 1960 and 1965; and had acquired either the assets or the trademarks of several smaller brewers in and around the geographic market.

The fourth largest producer of beer in the United States at the time of acquisition, Falstaff was a regional brewer6 with 5.9% of the Nation's production in 1964, having grown steadily since its beginning as a brewer in 1933 through acquisition and expansion of other breweries. As of January, 1965, Falstaff sold beer in 32 States, but did not sell in the Northeast, an area composed of New England and States such as New York and New Jersey, the area [93 S.Ct. 1099] being the highest beer consumption region in the

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United States. Between 1955 and 1966, the company's net sales and net income almost doubled, and, in 1964, it was planning a 10-year, $35 million program to expand its existing plants.

Falstaff met increasingly strong competition in the 1960's from four brewers who sold in all of the significant markets. National brewers possess competitive advantages, since they are able to advertise on a nationwide basis, their beers have greater prestige than regional or local beers, and they are less affected by the weather or labor problems in a particular region. Thus, Falstaff concluded that it must convert from "regional" to "national" status, if it was to compete effectively with the national producers.7 For several years, Falstaff publicly expressed its desire for national distribution,8 and, after making several efforts in the early 1960's to enter the Northeast by acquisition, agreed to acquire Narragansett in 1965.

Before the acquisition was accomplished, the United States brought suit,9 alleging that the acquisition would violate § 7 because its effect may be to substantially lessen competition in the production and sale of beer in the New England market. This contention was based on two grounds: because Falstaff was a potential entrant

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and because the acquisition eliminated competition that would have existed had Falstaff entered the market de novo or by acquisition and expansion of a smaller firm, a so-called "toe-hold" acquisition.10 The acquisition was completed after the Government's motions for injunctive relief were denied, and Falstaff agreed to operate Narragansett as a separate subsidiary until otherwise ordered by the court.

After a trial on the merits, the District Court found that the geographic market was highly competitive; that Falstaff was desirous of becoming a national brewer by entering the Northeast; that its management was committed against de novo entry; and that competition had not diminished since the acquisition.11 The District Court then held:

The Government's contentions that Falstaff at the time of said acquisition was a potential entrant into said New England market, and that said acquisition deprived the New England market of additional competition are not supported by the evidence. On the contrary, the credible evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the executive management of Falstaff had consistently decided not to attempt to enter said market unless it could acquire a brewery with a strong and viable distribution system such as that possessed by Narragansett. Said executives had carefully considered such possible alternatives as (1) acquisition of a small brewery on the east coast, (2) the shipping of beer from its

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existing breweries, the nearest of which was located in Ft. Wayne, [93 S.Ct. 1100] Indiana, (3) the building of a new brewery on the east coast and other possible alternatives, but concluded that none of said alternatives would have effected a reasonable probability of a profitable entry for it in said New England market. In my considered opinion, the plaintiff has failed to establish by a fair preponderance of the evidence that Falstaff was a potential competitor in said New England market at the time it acquired Narragansett. The credible evidence establishes that it was not a potential entrant into said market by any means or way other than by said acquisition. Consequently it cannot be said that its acquisition of Narragansett eliminated it as a potential competitor therein.

332 F.Supp. at 972.

Also finding that the Government had failed to establish that the acquisition would result in a substantial lessening of competition, the District Court entered Judgment for Falstaff and dismissed the complaint.


Section 7 of the Clayton Act forbids mergers in any line of commerce where the effect may be substantially to lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly. The section proscribes many mergers between competitors in a market, United States v. Continental Can Co., 378 U.S. 441 (1964); Brown Shoe Co. v. United States, 370 U.S. 294 (1962); it also bars certain acquisitions of a market competitor by a noncompetitor, such as a merger by an entrant who threatens to dominate the market or otherwise upset market conditions to the detriment of competition, FTC v. Procter & Gamble Co., 386 U.S. 568, 578-580 (1967). Suspect also is the acquisition by a company not competing in the market but so situated

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as to be a potential competitor and likely to exercise substantial influence on market behavior. Entry through merger by such a company, although its competitive conduct in the market may be the mirror image of that of the acquired company, may nevertheless violate § 7 because the entry eliminates a potential competitor exercising present influence on the market. Id. at 580-581; United States v. Penn-Olin Chemical Co., 378 U.S. 158, 173-174 (1964). As the Court stated in United States v. Penn-Olin Chemical Co., supra, at 174,

The existence of an aggressive, well equipped and well financed corporation engaged in the same or related lines of commerce waiting anxiously to enter an oligopolistic market would be a substantial incentive to competition which cannot be underestimated.

In the case before us, Falstaff was not a competitor in the New England market, nor is it contended that its merger with Narragansett represented an entry by a...

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