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Judge throws out verdict awarding millions to Dole workers

Ruling in a case in which six Nicaraguan men said they were sterilized by a pesticide while working on American-run banana farms, the court finds that the trial had been tainted by 'massive fraud.'

July 16, 2010|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

Putting an end to years-long litigation, a judge Thursday threw out a multimillion-dollar jury verdict awarded in 2007 to six Nicaraguan men claiming they were sterilized by a pesticide while working on American-run banana farms.

The six were the last remaining plaintiffs in cases brought in Los Angeles by purported Nicaraguan banana workers against produce giant Dole Food Co., which applied a pesticide banned in the U.S. for possibly causing sterility in men in its Central American plantations in the 1970s.

In an hourlong oral ruling from the bench, Justice Victoria G. Chaney of the California 2nd District Court of Appeal said a "confluence of historical, social, and political factors, and machinations of plaintiff's agents" meant the truth of who actually worked on the banana farms and were harmed by the pesticide may never be known.

"There was massive fraud perpetrated on this court," she said.

Tellez vs. Dole Food Co. marked the first case tried in the U.S. regarding the Nicaraguans' claims over dibromochloropropane, or DBCP. The outcome was heralded by plaintiff's attorneys as a landmark verdict that would set the tone for the tens of thousands of other Nicaraguans claiming injury.

The cases began unraveling in the months after the verdict, and last year.

Chaney dismissed two pending cases finding that there was pervasive fraud by American and Nicaraguan lawyers to recruit bogus banana workers, doctor medical tests and defraud U.S. courts for large payouts.

The lawsuit has gone through numerous twists and turns with secret witnesses, undercover operatives and accusations of fraud, forgery, bribery, corruption and everything in between.

On Thursday, Chaney concluded that of the six men, two were never banana workers, one aided in fraud, and as to the rest, the evidence was "equivocal" as to whether they ever worked on Dole-operated farms.

But Chaney said all claims had to be dismissed because fraudulent conduct by plaintiffs' lawyers and their agents led to Dole being unable to properly defend itself from the claims.

"It is understandable that the [Nicaraguan] populace is angry and feels impotent. The problem is, the focus of their rage is focused on one target: Dole's use of DBCP," said Chaney, who was on special appointment to Los Angeles County Superior Court to hear the case. "Unfortunately, this lawsuit is not the appropriate vehicle."

The decision was highly anticipated in the poverty-stricken, politically fragile country of Nicaragua, where tens of thousands still claim various medical conditions resulting from Dole's practices, and the case of the banana workers has been transformed into something of a political movement.

In Chinandega, Chaney has been mentioned by name in rallies and radio broadcasts, leading the jurist to indicate during a hearing that she feared for her safety.

Chaney's ruling came at the end of five days of hearings held in May and July in which Steve Condie, an attorney for the remaining plaintiffs attempted to salvage his clients' cases by arguing that Dole paid witnesses and gave them lavish treatment to obtain testimony of plaintiffs' fraud.

On Thursday, the judge said she was not convinced Dole had bribed witnesses.

Condie said after the ruling that he would appeal, saying Chaney's reliance on witnesses whose identities were kept secret was problematic. He also questioned her blanket dismissal of all plaintiffs.

"She's saying it's OK to commit injustice against three people for things outside their control, and I think that's wrong," he said.

Scott Edelman, an attorney for Dole, welcomed the ruling and said the case would have a wide-reaching impact on tort cases involving toxic chemicals.

"From my perspective, this case has never been about banana workers. It was brought by fake banana workers," he said. "The few remaining workers who believe they have been harmed are hurt by people in this case."

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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