The short answer to the statute-of-limitations question is that an antitrust action must be commenced “within four years after the cause of action accrued.” (15 U.S.C. § 15b). And the antitrust cause of action accrues when the defendant acts in violation of the antitrust laws and injures plaintiff.
But it isn’t always this simple. Sometimes the statute of limitations doesn’t start running right away, even when the antitrust defendant actually injures the plaintiff. Unlike the victim of a battery—maybe a punch to the face—a victim of the antitrust laws doesn’t always know that he or she or it (i.e. a corporation) suffered injury from an anticompetitive act.
This is called the discovery rule and it isn’t unique to antitrust. There are other types of claims in which the victim doesn’t even know about the injury. Fraud is a good example. The victim may not know that he or she has been swindled. When they find out about the fraud, the statute of limitations may have passed. But if the cause of action doesn’t accrue until discovery, the victim will still have the standard time period to file a lawsuit.
The discovery rule could also apply to a medical malpractice case—the sort of case we don’t handle. Like a fraud injury, the victim may be walking around totally oblivious to an injury. Maybe during a surgery the doctor’s Fitbit Blaze watch fell off and landed in the patient? The doctor, none the wiser because he or she was concentrating so hard, simply didn’t notice. Presumably a Fitbit left in the body causes some sort of medical injury, so when the patient/victim finds out about it, the cause of action begins to accrue. Of course, I don’t know if Fitbits are often left in bodies because we don’t do medical malpractice work.
Not all courts apply the discovery rule in antitrust cases: Check out this article by Michael Christian and Eric Buetzow if you have a Law360 subscription. Of course, even if a Court applies the injury rule to the exclusion of the discovery rule (and they sometimes do), a plaintiff could still invoke fraudulent concealment to postpone accrual of many antitrust claims.
You will likely see a fraudulent concealment count in any case involving a long-lasting conspiracy. That is because the nature of a conspiracy—in most cases—is to hide the anticompetitive conduct. Most antitrust claims where a discovery rule would be useful are ones in which a plaintiff could likely invoke fraudulent concealment.
Fraudulent concealment means that the defendants are purposely trying to hide their bad conduct, with an intent to deceive the victims.
So, for example, if there are a group of competitors that are engaged in a price-fixing conspiracy and they also cover up the conspiracy, it is likely that a Court will find that the conspirators committed a fraudulent concealment such that the antitrust cause of action doesn’t begin to accrue until the victim discovers the conspiracy.
You will see claims of fraudulent concealment in many antitrust complaints. Of course, if you are an antitrust plaintiff, you may have to show that you exercised diligence during the concealment period.