A Los Angeles personal injury lawyer will face contempt charges and possible prison time for an alleged scheme to defraud Dole Food Co. of billions of dollars by falsely claiming that Nicaraguan banana farmers were rendered sterile by exposure to a banned pesticide.
Juan J. Dominguez, a Cuban-born lawyer who was representing the Nicaraguans, is to appear before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney on June 15 for the contempt hearing, the judge ruled Friday. Chaney said earlier that she would also refer the case to the state attorney general and the California Bar Assn. for disciplinary actions.
Dominguez said in an e-mail that he appreciated the court's efforts to protect his legal rights in "a difficult and highly charged situation." He denied any wrongdoing and declined to comment further.
In a dramatic unraveling of the case seeking compensation for as many as 10,000 Nicaraguans, Chaney last week threw out two lawsuits against Dole after hearing secret testimony by plaintiffs that they had been recruited and promised lavish payouts to pose as victims of dibromochloropropane, or DBCP.
"We had a breakthrough in that a person on cross-examination basically admitted he'd never worked on a banana farm and everything he had testified to he learned from coaching in law offices in Nicaragua," said Scott Edelman, an attorney for Dole. "We had always suspected that."
Chaney denounced the alleged scheme as "blatant extortion" of Dole and the makers of DBCP, which has been banned in the United States since 1979.
Lawyers for the Nicaraguans had been attempting to get a federal judge in Florida to recognize Nicaraguan court awards of as much as $490 million to alleged victims of the pesticide. In a jury trial before Chaney in 2007, Dole lost and was ordered to pay $1.58 million to 13 Nicaraguans claiming injury. That case is now on appeal.
"We think this is critical evidence that should have a devastating effect on any efforts to enforce any Nicaraguan judgments in the United States," Edelman said.
Dozens of suits have been filed by foreign plantation workers, including about 700 Ivory Coast farmers alleging genocide by the fruit company and pesticide manufacturers. That claim was rejected by a federal appeals court panel in September.
The Africans' suit against Dole, Amvac Chemical Corp. of Newport Beach, Dow Chemical Co. and Shell Oil Co. was filed under the federal Alien Torts Statute, which allows defendants to be held accountable for their actions abroad.
Raphael Metzger, the Long Beach attorney representing the Ivory Coast plaintiffs, didn't return a phone call from The Times.
Dominguez is a familiar face to many in Los Angeles County from his firm's Spanish-language advertising on buses, benches and billboards.
Edelman said that Dole wasn't in a position to suggest fraud was involved in other lawsuits over the pesticide, but that the company looks at all the cases "with great skepticism." The lawyer said there is no evidence that exposure to DBCP at the infrequent and low levels it was used on the foreign plantations decades ago would cause sterility above naturally occurring rates.