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Legal Action May Not Help Firms


Companies stung with losses from the port lockout might be looking to sue for relief or damages, but the legal hurdles for getting help won't make it easy, experts said Tuesday.

A federal judge Tuesday denied Dole Food Co.'s request for an emergency order to retrieve 8.3 million pounds of bananas stranded at the Port of Los Angeles, said Craig de Recat, a lawyer for Dole. It couldn't be immediately determined why the request was rejected by U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder in Los Angeles.

Dole, the giant fruit and vegetable concern based in Westlake Village, wasn't even seeking damages but merely wanted to get its bananas--valued at $1.7 million--to markets before they spoiled.

Other companies such as retailers, automakers, railroads, farmers and truckers said they've suffered millions of dollars in losses because of the dispute that shut down 29 West Coast ports. So far, companies such as Union Pacific Corp., Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Sunkist Growers Inc. said they didn't plan legal action to offset the losses.

The prevailing federal law in these cases--the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act--provides sizable protection for the shipping lines and port operators in the event of a lockout or strike, said Robert Force, head of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University in New Orleans.

There are exceptions, however, especially if the harmed company can prove that the shipping lines or their agents caused the shutdown, lawyers said.

"It's not a blank check whereby the vessel owner or the carrier can throw up their hands and say, 'It's a strike or lockout, therefore we're off the hook,' " said A. Robert Degen, a maritime lawyer with Fox Rothschild O'Brien & Frankel in Philadelphia. "You're going to have to look at what the individual contract says."

The lockout was called by the port operators' trade group, the Pacific Maritime Assn., but only after the PMA alleged that the unionized dockworkers engaged in an untenable work slowdown. Thus, any company suing for financial damages also would have to grapple with labor laws that probably would come into play, further complicating their ability to recover any money, experts said.

Dole, in requesting a court order allowing the company to move its bananas out of port, contended that keeping the produce there was a violation of the federal Carriage of Goods by Sea Act. The company also said that if its stranded bananas became worthless, Dole might be exposed to customer lawsuits.

Dole rival Chiquita Brands was able to reroute one of its banana boats, which had been docked off the coast of Long Beach, to Ensenada, Mexico. There, the 180,000 boxes of bananas from Guatemala were put on trucks for delivery to West Coast markets, said Chiquita spokesman Mike Mitchell.

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