A company that used to build barges has sued Harris Trust and Savings Bank, claiming it was put out of business by the Chicago lender.
Lawyers said the antitrust case, if successful, could cost Harris as much as $60 million.
Harris, a unit of Bank of Montreal, is being sued in U.S. District Court here by CSY Liquidating Corp., formerly known as Caruthersville Shipyard Inc.
CSY accused Harris of conspiring with its biggest competitor to put it out of business. A trial has been set for Oct. 27.
Harris had given CSY a $7.2 million loan, which went into default four years ago. Harris sold the note to another shipyard operator, Trinity Industries Inc., in February 1993, a month after Caruthersville Shipyard had suspended operations. Trinity foreclosed on the loan and shut down the shipyard.
Lawyers for CSY said the note sale not only violated federal antitrust law but also breached the bank's fiduciary duty and a state law prohibiting banks from disclosing confidential information about their customers without their consent.
"Imagine if your mortgage was sold to your worst enemy, knowing that he was going to put you out on the street," said Daniel R. Shulman, a Minneapolis attorney representing CSY.
Trinity, which was originally named co-defendant with Harris, settled out of court last October. Terms of the agreement have not been made public. A spokeswoman for Harris declined to comment, citing a policy of silence while litigation is pending.
A former bank official said in a deposition that Harris was concerned the shipyard could be forced into involuntary bankruptcy. The bank never denied that it had shopped the loan to two Caruthersville competitors, Trinity and Jeffboat.
Charles Adair, a former Harris vice president, also said in a deposition that the bank gave Caruthersville "over a year to work out a variety of different proposals that they were unsuccessful accomplishing."
"The bank feels it acted appropriately in this situation," said Daniel W. Weil, a Chicago attorney representing Harris. He added that a motion to dismiss the suit would soon be filed.
Caruthersville, which operated an inland waterway barge factory in Caruthersville, Mo., said Harris had delivered it a notice of default just as the shipyard was trying to obtain refinancing.
It alleged Harris knew that if it sold the loan to a competing shipyard, it would be essentially selling the company at a below-market price. Caruthersville's value was $24 million to $25 million at the time, according to the lawsuit.
When Trinity agreed to buy the note, Harris accepted a $200,000 "bribe," the suit alleges. Mr. Adair said in his deposition that this was a sales fee.