A lawyer for Dole Fresh Fruit Co. outlined to a judge on Tuesday evidence of a scheme to collect millions of dollars in damages by recruiting men to pose as having been rendered sterile from exposure to a pesticide on Nicaraguan banana plantations.
Attorney Scott Edelman told a hearing that witnesses feared being killed for testifying about the scheme. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney said she was concerned for the safety of investigators and attorneys and feared obstruction of justice and interference with due process.
The allegations involve lawsuits over the pesticide DBCP, which was used in the 1970s and then banned over health issues.
A Los Angeles jury in November 2007 awarded $2.5 million in punitive damages to five workers, but the court later dismissed those damages, saying they could not be used to punish a domestic corporation for injuries that occurred only in a foreign country.
The jury also awarded more than $3 million in actual damages, which were later reduced to $1.58 million.
The case marked the first time a U.S. jury heard a lawsuit involving sterility and DBCP. That lawsuit alleged that Dole continued to use the pesticide, which is now banned worldwide, long after its dangers were known.
In an opening statement at Tuesday's hearing, Edelman described what he said was a decade-long conspiracy to defraud U.S. companies.
The Dole attorney said lawyers in Nicaragua recruited poverty-stricken men to pose as plantation workers and claim they had been rendered sterile by use of the pesticide on bananas.
The men were given training seminars, told to study hard and learn details of the industry, and to hide their children because they would prove the men were not sterile, Edelman said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs who sought to sue Dole made only a brief opening statement. But one of the lawyers, Michael Axline, said he agreed with the Dole lawyer that "all parties were in a nightmare situation."
He expressed regrets for the actions of a onetime co-counsel in Nicaragua who is now accused of engineering the fraud.
Chaney has been the judge in lawsuits filed in Los Angeles against Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole and Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co., which manufactured the pesticide.