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Roundup: Judge grants discovery in lawsuits to block $28B Heinz deal; Utility rates set to increase; more

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
KRT FOOD STORY SLUGGED: CORN KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB FILA (July 29) Neat rows of planted corn yield bushels of the crop as a harvesting machine moves through the fields of a large commercial farm near Hector, Minnesota. (KRT) NC KD 2002 (Horiz) (mvw)
KRT FOOD STORY SLUGGED: CORN KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB FILA (July 29) Neat rows of planted corn yield bushels of the crop as a harvesting machine moves through the fields of a large commercial farm near Hector, Minnesota. (KRT) NC KD 2002 (Horiz) (mvw)

Judge grants motion in suits to block Heinz deal

A federal judge in Pittsburgh on Thursday ordered H.J. Heinz Co. to turn over documents and make CEO William Johnson available for questioning by lawyers for shareholders suing to block the company's $28 billion acquisition by Warren Buffett and a Brazilian investment firm. The two shareholder lawsuits against the Heinz board of directors, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and 3G Capital Management claim that their deal shortchanges shareholders because it keeps other interested parties from offering a higher price for the company. The order by Judge David Stewart Cercone gives Heinz two weeks to turn over documents and then a week later to make Johnson, director Thomas J. Usher, who headed a special committee set up to consider the transaction, and three others available for depositions. The lawsuits were filed by Hannon's Inc., a Maryland company that owns Heinz stock, and shareholder James Clem, who was not otherwise identified. They contend Johnson, fellow executives of Heinz and the board intend to cash out millions in stock and benefits that are not available to shareholders. Johnson could receive a payout of up to $212 million. Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said the company “does not comment on ongoing litigation.” Heinz shareholders will vote on the proposed $72.50 per share buyout on April 30 in New York.

Gas utility rates set to increase

Prices are on the rise for customers of both Equitable Gas Co. and Peoples Natural Gas Co. LLC, two of the region's major natural gas utilities. Their average customer's bill this spring will rise by more than $3.50 per month compared with a year ago because of the rising market costs for natural gas, officials said Thursday before quarterly rate adjustments due to the state. This year's cold winter sent wholesale prices rising across the country, costing the local utilities between $0.81 and $1.33 more per thousand cubic feet, they said. “Eighty cents is not off the charts, but that is on the higher side of what we've seen of late,” said Tanya J. McCloskey, the state's acting consumer advocate. “We've had a fairly stable gas price environment for the last several years.” Three of the four local gas utilities have quarterly gas cost adjustments due to state Public Utility Commission by Friday. Peoples TWP LLC's is not due until May 1. Equitable and Peoples released their numbers early before the Good Friday holiday, but Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania will not be releasing its new numbers until Friday or Monday, a spokeswoman there said.

Workers' comp cost to decline

Workers' compensation insurance rates paid by Pennsylvania employers will decline on April 1, saving them up to $110 million, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Consedine said on Thursday. The rate reduction of 4.01 percent is the second in a row, he said. The savings vary according to claims experience, payroll and other factors. Not all employers will see a decrease. Rates are declining because of employer efforts to increase workplace safety, said Labor & Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway. More than 10,000 state-certified workplace safety committees protect 1.3 million workers and save employers $500 million in premiums, she said.

Workers' compensation insurance provides for medical care and rehabilitation for injured workers, and lost wages and death benefits for the dependents of people killed in work-related accidents.

Highmark aimsto lower costs

Highmark Inc. next week will begin offering a new benefit in its group plans for companies that would push employees to use select hospitals for certain high-risk, high-cost surgeries. The state's largest health insurer said its Blue Distinction Benefits could lower health costs by having patients treated in hospitals that sport track records of fewer complications and readmissions. Members who use Blue Distinction hospitals for bariatric surgery, cardiac care, complex and rare cancers, knee and hip replacement, spine surgery and transplants could see their deductibles or co-pays reduced or waived, Highmark said. In Western Pennsylvania, Highmark has designated 14 hospitals as Blue Distinction. To see a full list, go online to

Highest corn acreage expected

Farmers intend to plant 97.3 million acres of corn this year, the most since 1936, the federal Department of Agriculture's spring planting survey stated Thursday. The survey said the 2013 corn planting forecast is up slightly from last year's 97.2 million acres. Corn remains profitable, as prices are holding strong around $7 per bushel after last year's severe drought left the grain in short supply. In a separate report, the USDA said corn stocks fell 10 percent from a year ago to 5.40 billion bushels. Record corn acreage is expected in Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota and Oregon. And Iowa, the nation's leading corn producer, will plant an estimated 14.2 million acres in corn, the same as last year.

BlackBerry posts surprise profit

BlackBerry, fighting to stay relevant in the booming smartphone market, announced Thursday that it had turned a surprising profit in its most recent quarter and that initial sales of its newest phone were strong. BlackBerry loyalists snapped up 1 million Z10 smartphones during the fiscal quarter ended March 2, matching modest sales expectations. And the company earned a small profit, $98 million, during its fiscal fourth quarter, the first quarterly profit in a year. BlackBerry, which changed its name from Research in Motion this year, has been struggling to secure its position in the smartphone market it once dominated. Company executives have said they would be satisfied with capturing enough of the market to just trail Apple's iPhone and smartphones made by Google's Android software. BlackBerry is betting on the success of the Z10 and the unreleased Q10 to secure that position.

— Staff and wire reports

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