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Dole Food accuses 'Bananas!' filmmaker of slander, libel

The documentary about workers' lawsuits that a judge ruled were fraudulent is riddled with inaccuracies, the firm contends.

July 09, 2009|Victoria Kim

Earlier this year, Dole Food Co. won a major victory in the L.A. courts when a judge threw out lawsuits brought by Nicaraguan banana workers purportedly rendered sterile by pesticide, saying the plaintiffs' case was a product of massive fraud.

Now Dole is headed back to court but this time, it's Dole that's claiming to be the victim.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Dole accused a Swedish filmmaker behind a documentary shown at last month's Los Angeles Film Festival of slander and libel. The film "Bananas!" by Fredrik Gertten chronicles a 2007 case against Dole from the Nicaraguans' point of view and prominently features L.A. attorney Juan J. Dominguez, who now faces contempt charges.

In light of the judge's finding of fraud by the plaintiffs' attorneys, Dole attorneys contend in the complaint that "Bananas!" unfairly demonizes Dole and is riddled with factual inaccuracies.

Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney, in a 60-page ruling dismissing two pending lawsuits, said attorneys for the Nicaraguans engaged in a brazen scheme to recruit men who had never worked on banana plantations, train them to lie on the stand and fabricate medical evidence to back up the claims.

Gertten could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Richard J. Lee -- an attorney representing Gertten and producer Margarete Jangard, who is also named as a defendant -- said, "We believe that this suit is without merit and represents the latest in a continued line of intimidating harassment by a multinational corporation aimed squarely at a small, independent film and its filmmakers."

In a statement distributed at the screenings, Gertten defended his film and its portrayal of the 2007 trial, which ended with a partial victory for the Nicaraguans with a $1.58-million verdict for some of the plaintiffs. An appellate court this week moved one step closer to that case being thrown out, ruling that the plaintiffs must show it was not fraudulent.

"Everything I filmed is the truth: It's what my cameras captured and how this all played out during this trial," Gertten wrote in the statement. "Having 'Bananas!' now in the public arena and being able to discuss and defend my film will be a great thing for all of us involved."

After Chaney's ruling, attorneys for Dole sent a number of "cease and desist" letters to the filmmaker and the festival, calling the film false and defamatory and threatening litigation.

The festival, which the Los Angeles Times is a sponsor of, pulled the documentary from competition but kept the two scheduled screenings, presenting it as a "case study" on responsible filmmaking.

At the festival screenings, extra frames were added to the end of the film with text explaining the latest developments in the case, including Chaney's finding of fraud. Dole's attorneys, however, said those changes were anything but adequate. "These few lines of printed text did nothing to remove or mitigate the utter falsity of what was communicated" in the film, they wrote.

The festival was not named in the lawsuit filed Wednesday.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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