A Los Angeles jury ordered Dole Food Co. on Thursday to pay five Nicaraguan banana plantation workers $2.5 million as punishment for concealing the dangers of a pesticide that rendered them unable to have children.
The verdict, which awarded far less in punitive damages than some observers expected, was hailed as a victory by attorneys on both sides. It follows a Nov. 5 jury award of $3.2 million in compensatory damages.
The five-month trial marked the first time a U.S. jury had found Dole liable for its conduct outside of the United States, and may pave the way for future judgments. Some 6,800 other workers have filed suit over Dole's use of the pesticide DBCP, which has been banned worldwide.
Dole attorney Rick McKnight said the verdict was "a huge defeat" for the workers. "It doesn't even pay their costs, much less their bills," he said.
Overall, the workers were awarded $5.7 million from jurors who found that the Westlake Village-based corporation acted fraudulently when it sent workers into its Nicaraguan fields without warning them that the pesticide had sterilized California plant workers.
Duane Miller, the field hands' attorney, said the verdict sends an important message to Dole, which employs 75,000 workers worldwide and describes itself as the nation's largest grower of fruits and vegetables.
"It lets [Dole] know that they're accountable for what they do, even if they do it south of our border," Miller said. "Our reputation as a country is partially dependent on the reputations of our corporations doing things overseas."
The Nicaraguan lawyer for the workers, Antonio Hernandez Ordenana, said his clients were "not trying to enrich themselves."
"What really matters is that Dole sterilized these peasants and thousands more humble Nicaraguan peasants, and in the rest of Central America, and we proved it. That is what counts, and I'm proud of it," Ordenana said.
To some legal observers, the award was surprisingly low.
"Dole got out of this very cheaply," said USC law professor Clare Pastore. "It had the potential to be a blockbuster case, and it didn't turn out that way." Pastore said the relatively small verdict may "dampen the hope of future plaintiffs."
During the trial, Dole's lawyers urged jurors not to hold the sins of the "old Dole" from 1977 against the "new Dole" of today. The company, McKnight said, now emphasizes worker and environmental safety.
Jurors said they were widely separated on the amount of the punitive damages.
Juror Kathy Achee said she wanted to sock Dole for $5 million for each of the workers, but compromised.
"I think $500,000 wasn't a huge punishment for a corporation like Dole," Achee said. "I don't think it's that big of a deterrent. I don't know that $5 million would be enough."
Juror Lonnie Chin said she entered the final deliberations feeling that the workers already had been paid enough in compensatory damages last week.
One juror with a personal perspective on the dispute was Eloisa Alejandro.
She said she had picked berries, broccoli and celery in the fields of Ventura County. She said the award was fair, considering the relative strength of the parties.
"If you are in a position of power, then you have the responsibility to communicate to the workers that they had a choice," Alejandro said.
According to Alejandro Garro, a professor of Latin American law at Columbia University, it is the verdict itself, rather than the amount, that is important. It will make corporations such as Dole "pay attention to what they do abroad," he said.
"It is worth noting that if the case had been tried abroad and [Dole] had been found liable, punitive damages would not have been an option, given the fact that in most legal systems damages can only be awarded to compensate the victims, but never to punish the defendant," Garro said.
The case was widely seen as a test of how well the U.S. legal system could respond to injuries inflicted in a globalized economy. Because the harm occurred in Central America, the defendants had argued for years that the trials should take place there, rather than in the United States. Workers in Nicaragua have won as much as $600 million in damages against Dole and other producers but have yet to collect, according to their attorneys.
DBCP fights pests that attack the roots of fruit trees and boosts the weight of banana harvests by 20%, according to trial testimony.
But it stops rabbits from procreating and has rendered field hands and production workers sterile.
The field hands won an additional $700,000 in compensatory damages from Dow Chemical Co., which stopped producing the pesticide in 1977 when production workers in Lathrop, Calif., discovered they had been sterilized as a result of exposure.
In Nicaragua, a field hand with sterility problems hailed the verdict in Los Angeles.
"I feel happy," said Joaquin Francisco Garcia. "It is an emotional day for all of us who have for years [been] struggling to see justice being done. The verdicts have changed all the sadness in my heart, because the road now is open for the rest of us."
Alexander Renderos in Nicaragua contributed to this report.