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Plantation workers look for justice in the North

After years of toil in Central American fields where they say pesticide use made them sterile, they're suing Dow, Dole and other firms in L.A.

May 27, 2007|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

Chinandega, Nicaragua — THE people crammed into the stifling basketball gym. They filled the court, lined the walls and tumbled beyond the doors onto the sun-blistered streets.

They had gathered to hear a promise of justice.

Many had spent their lives toiling on banana plantations that U.S. companies operated in this region some 30 years ago. By day, the workers had harvested bunches of fruit to ship to North American tables. At night, some had sprayed pesticide into the warm, humid air to protect the trees from insects and rot.

As the decades passed, the workers came to believe that the pesticide, called DBCP, had cost them their health. Prodded by U.S. lawyers, thousands joined lawsuits in the U.S. and Nicaragua alleging that the pesticide made them sterile.

The U.S. firms that sold and used the pesticide have never faced a U.S. jury trial over its use abroad. Last month, a Los Angeles attorney named Juan J. Dominguez stood before a sea of nearly 800 dark, hard faces and predicted that the day of reckoning was at hand.

"We are fighting multinational corporations. They are giants. And they are going to fall!" Dominguez thundered.

The crowd exploded. They leapt to their feet, waved their hats, shook fists in the air. "Viva! Viva!" they chanted.

The scene last month foreshadowed a legal drama set to play out in a Los Angeles courtroom this summer, when a lawsuit filed by Dominguez and his partners could end a struggle that has sprawled across three decades and courtrooms on four continents.

For the first time, a U.S. jury will have the chance to weigh the accusation that Dole Food Co. knowingly used a pesticide manufactured by Dow Chemical Co. that sterilized workers in Latin America three decades ago.

The complexity, history and geographic spread of the case demonstrate how legal systems have failed to keep pace with the rapid movement of goods across international borders. Jurisdictional and procedural issues have repeatedly impeded attempts to sue U.S. companies in the United States for alleged wrongdoing in other countries.

"The question is where do we litigate these issues," said Alejandro Garro, a Columbia University law professor and expert in international law. "The answer is that we don't have a global law. We are building it on a case-by-case basis."

Dole, the Westlake Village-based food giant, and Dow, of Midland, Mich., deny the allegations. Both companies acknowledge that the pesticide DBCP has been linked to sterility in men exposed to it while manufacturing it in factories. And both companies acknowledge that the product was used in Nicaragua's banana fields.

But the companies contend that there is no proof that DBCP (dibromochloropropane) sterilized any field worker. The quantities of DBCP used were too small, and the open-air conditions too diffuse, to cause harm, the companies say.

"Dow views most of today's claims relative to the product as without merit," said Dow spokesman William Ghant. Dow acknowledged that the possibility of harm existed but said the product was safe as long as instructions were followed.

Dole said it applied DBCP in Nicaragua 13 times in the 1970s, with each spraying lasting about two weeks. The pesticide was an effective killer of tiny worms that caused the roots of banana plants to rot.

"There is no reliable scientific evidence at all that points to this pesticide causing any injury to field workers in the open air environment," said Michael Carter, Dole's general counsel. "There is no science to support that. None."

Earlier this month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney made a ruling that broadened the potential reach of the case.

Chaney linked Dominguez's case with four other pending lawsuits in Los Angeles involving sterility claims on behalf of more than 3,000 former banana workers from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama. In addition to Dow and Dole, Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., Chiquita Brands Inc. and Shell Oil Co. are named as defendants in those cases.

Cincinnati-based Chiquita declined comment on the lawsuit but said it used the chemical briefly in the 1970s in Panama and Costa Rica. Shell said it sold no DBCP in Central America after 1974 and that "few, if any" banana workers were harmed by its product. Del Monte said it used the pesticide briefly in Costa Rica and Guatemala and declined further comment.

In the middle of the dispute are this region's people. The case has spread its own kind of toxin, infecting every facet of life in this fertile bottomland wedged between volcanoes and the ocean on Nicaragua's Pacific Coast.

After 30 years of being told they have been poisoned, locals tend to blame the region's many health and environmental woes on DBCP.

They call themselves the afectados -- the affected ones.

13 men, 1 lawsuit

Jose Adolfo Tellez never wanted to be a legal pioneer.

With dark hair and a broad, round face, Tellez lives in a two-room cinder-block house in Chichigalpa, a town in the heart of Nicaragua's banana zone.

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