A Los Angeles judge has wiped out most of a jury verdict awarding millions of dollars to Nicaraguan field hands who applied pesticides to Dole Food Co. crops and who are now sterile.
Although the decision leaves four workers with $1.58 million, it will undercut claims of an estimated 6,000 others who have sued in the United States for similar injuries suffered outside of this country.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney overturned jury verdicts in the first U.S. trials of claims filed by victims of the pesticide DBCP.
It was produced 30 years ago but is now banned worldwide.
Chaney, in a written decision dated March 7, found that because Dole was a user, not a marketer, of the pesticide, the firm cannot be subjected to liability without fault.
In wiping out the half of the verdict made up of punitive damages, Chaney reasoned they may not be used to punish "a domestic corporation for injuries that occurred only in a foreign country."
The injuries occurred more than 30 years ago, a factor Chaney also cited in reversing the verdicts.
"These cases will dry up, and they should," said Rick McKnight, Dole's attorney. "These cases ought to be settled by neutral principles, not litigation."
Thousands of workers have pressed claims against Dole in Central America, McKnight said.
C. Michael Carter, Dole's executive vice president and general counsel, said the Westlake Village-based multinational corporation has set up a program for compensating Honduran workers.
He said the company is trying to do the same thing in Nicaragua, where the workers in Chaney's case live.
"The rationale of Judge Chaney's ruling clearly appears to preclude the award of punitive damages against Dole in any of the other cases pending in California, regardless of whether the plaintiffs are from Nicaragua or any other foreign country," Carter said.
Jurors in L.A. last fall had found Dole responsible for $2.5 million in compensatory damages, and another $2.5 million in punitive damages.
Lawyers for the workers could not be reached.
McKnight estimated that an additional 10,000 pesticide claims are pending worldwide for about $35 billion.
"We are pressing hard in both Honduras, where there is a procedure set up to compensate workers, and pressing for Nicaragua to set one up. That's the sensible way to do it," McKnight said.
"Dole is not unsympathetic to those who have legitimate claims."
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.
Legal observers here see the verdict as an additional deterrent to future lawsuits in the United States.
The chemical 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.