APNewsBreak: Settlement in SweeTango apple lawsuit

By STEVE KARNOWSKI | September 19, 2011 | 4:35 PM EDT

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A lawsuit challenging the University of Minnesota's exclusive licensing deal for its hot-selling SweeTango apple is ending with a victory for the school and the cooperative that markets the new variety nationwide, although more producers will be able to grow the apple, representatives for both sides told The Associated Press on Monday.

The university has awarded exclusive SweeTango rights to Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City. Pepin Heights organized a cooperative of growers across the northern states and southern Canada called the Next Big Thing to market the variety.

More than a dozen other growers, mostly in Minnesota, sued in last year, saying they were frozen out of a lucrative deal that unfairly denied them access to an apple developed by their own land-grant university.

The settlement obtained Monday by the AP, which still must be approved by a judge, would maintain the university's licensing agreement with the Next Big Thing cooperative. But also would allow Minnesota orchards to lease the trees that grow the SweeTango apples and for the number of trees an orchard can grow to incrementally increase during the next five years.

The university's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, was not immediately available for comment, but Dennis Courtier, owner of Pepin Heights, called the settlement a big win. He said his group had long been willing to allow more Minnesota orchards a bigger piece of the pie as long as they would abide by existing restrictions on how they can grow and sell the SweeTango.

Lisa Lamm Bachman, an attorney for the growers who filed the lawsuit, said they were "disappointed but moving forward." She said they made a business decision to settle rather than appeal a judge's February ruling that upheld the university's right to award the exclusive license to Pepin Heights.

"What's important here, what this lawsuit did do, is it did result in making more trees available for more apple growers throughout the state of Minnesota," Bachman said.

Assuming the judge signs off on the agreement, the lawsuit will be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can't be filed again, and the growers who filed it will have to pay $25,000 in legal fees to Pepin Heights.