Major technology companies have been hit with an antitrust action charging that they illegally fixed the prices for liquid crystal display (LCD) screens used in computers, televisions, and cell phones.

In her lawsuit, Illinois AG Lisa Madigan asks the Circuit Court of Cook County to prohibit the companies from engaging in the illegal activity and to award as damages the overcharges paid on the purchase of these items by the State of Illinois and its residents. The suit also seeks civil penalties, fees and costs.

"These companies conspired to illegally fix the prices for LCD screens," said Madigan. "This lawsuit seeks to recover the money that Illinois residents and the State paid because of the price-fixing conspiracy."

In his $100 million lawsuit, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger charges that top executives of the firms held special meetings and used a telephone "hotline" in order to share pricing information and production volumes and agreed to inflated prices resulting in artificially high prices to Oregon purchasers of LCD panels and products.

"This important lawsuit will help ensure a fair marketplace and protect Oregon consumers," Kroger said.

Collusion charged

The Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese companies, in combination with their American and certain foreign subsidiaries, allegedly agreed with each other to raise the prices each would charge for their LCD screens. These companies controlled approximately 90 percent of the sales of LCD screens sold in the United States. As a result, the suits claim, the prices for the products containing these screens were raised to levels significantly above the prices that consumers would otherwise have paid had the prices been set through normal competition.

The Illinois complaint cites evidence that:

• Top-level executives of these companies, including some of their CEOs, attended secret meetings on a regular monthly or quarterly basis to agree on minimum prices, price targets and increases, and prices to be charged for specific screens and screen sizes.

• These companies exchanged price and production information to insure that their consumers would have to pay the agreed prices.

• These companies also met face-to-face and by phone in smaller groups or one-on-one to coordinate their prices and avoid letting competition lead to lower prices.

The defendants named in the actions are AU Optronics Corporation; AU Optronics Corporation America, Inc.; Chi Mei Innolux Corporation; Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp. USA, Inc.; CMO Japan Co., Ltd.; Epson Imaging Devices Corp.; Epson Electronics America, Inc.; Hitachi, Ltd.; Hitachi Displays, Ltd.; Hitachi America, Ltd.; Hitachi Electronic Devices (USA), Inc.; LG Display Co., Ltd.; LG Display America, Inc.; Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.; Samsung Semiconductor, Inc.; Samsung Electronics America, Inc.; Sharp Corporation; Sharp Electronics Corporation; Toshiba Corporation; Toshiba America Electronic Components, Inc.; Toshiba Mobile Display Co., Ltd.; and Toshiba America Information Systems, Inc.

Spokesmen for Samsung and Toshiba told that their companies don't comment on legal issues.

Prior to filing the lawsuit Kroger and other state attorneys general obtained a settlement with Chunghwa Picture Tubes LTD, the terms of which require the company to cooperate with the states' lawsuits and pay $486,000.