Several U.S. and Nicaraguan attorneys have developed an "industry" around bringing fraudulent claims against Dole for exposure to a banned pesticide, a Los Angeles County judge wrote in a ruling Wednesday.
Elaborating on an April 23 ruling that dismissed two lawsuits brought by purported farmworkers against Dole, Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney wrote that the attorneys had hired "captains" to recruit men from the poorest areas of Nicaragua, coached them to testify that they had worked on Dole-affiliated banana farms and paid medical labs to fabricate evidence that the men had been rendered sterile by chemicals.
One of the attorneys, Los Angeles-based Juan J. Dominguez, has been ordered to face contempt charges for his involvement in the alleged fraud. A hearing for Dominguez, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was pushed back to July.
Scott Edelman, an attorney for Dole, said Chaney's extensive, 60-page ruling probably would affect most similar claims brought against Dole on behalf of Nicaraguans and other Central American and African farmers. Dole's position is that infrequent exposure to open-air diffusion of dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, does not cause sterility.
"Sadly, this means that if there are people who have been injured in Nicaragua due to DBCP exposure, it is extremely difficult if not impossible for them credibly to litigate their claims," Chaney wrote in a document of legal findings and conclusions that she signed Wednesday.
Dominguez has alleged in statements filed with the court that Chaney has expressed bias and prejudice against him and should be removed from the case. An attorney for Dominguez said his client had not been given due process because he was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses in the fraud hearings that led to the dismissal of the suits.
Dominguez had alleged that Dole's attorneys bribed witnesses to get them to testify to the alleged fraud, but he never presented witnesses or declarations to back up that allegation, Chaney said in her ruling.
According to Chaney, Dominguez and other attorneys were disappointed by the small number of former banana farm workers and the low rate of sterility among the few they found. Instead, she wrote, they used scripts and videos to educate plaintiffs about life on banana farms and organized field trips to sites of former farms to familiarize them with their layouts. Some of the men had children after their purported work on the farm, but attorneys suppressed evidence of those children, according to the ruling. At least one meeting took place among the attorneys, their recruiters, representatives from medical labs and a Nicaraguan judge. That judge later ruled against Dole, granting hundreds of millions of dollars to plaintiffs, Chaney wrote.
In 2007, a jury awarded $1.58 million to four Nicaraguans in Chaney's court. An appeals court is considering whether to send the case back to lower court in light of the findings, Edelman said.
Chaney's ruling also casts doubt on the cases of more than 10,000 men who have filed lawsuits against Dole in Nicaragua, where judges have awarded more than $2.1 billion to plaintiffs. Chaney also wrote the fraud extends to a case pending in Florida, in which lawyers are asking a U.S. judge to recognize a Nicaraguan court's judgment of as much as $98.5 million to alleged victims.