Chiquita sued in NY over killings in Colombia

Wed Nov 14, 2007 4:09pm EST

NEW YORK Nov 14 (Reuters) - The largest U.S. lawsuit to date against top banana producer Chiquita Brands International (CQB.N) was filed on Wednesday, claiming the company funded and armed a Colombian paramilitary organization accused of killing banana growers.

The civil lawsuit seeks a total of $7.86 billion on behalf of 393 victims and their relatives and accuses Chiquita of conspiring with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym AUC, to control Colombia's banana growing regions.

"It was about acquiring every aspect of banana distribution and sale through a reign of terror," plaintiffs' lawyer Jonathan Reiter told reporters in New York. The suit seeks damages for supporting terrorism, war crimes, wrongful death and torture.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court, is the latest of several complaints filed by Colombian victims against Chiquita in the United States this year.

The company has admitted paying off violent guerrilla groups, including the AUC, who are accused of carrying out massacres during Colombia's long-running guerrilla war before it began disarming in 2003.

In March, Chiquita agreed to pay a $25 million fine to settle a criminal complaint with the U.S Justice Department, which accused it of paying the AUC more than $1.7 million from 1997 to 2004. The U.S. government designates the AUC a foreign terrorist organization.

Reiter said none of that money would reach victims. In September, Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said the Justice Department agreement should not grant Chiquita immunity from further payments.

Michael Mitchell, a spokesman for Chiquita, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, said the lawsuit "grossly mischaracterized the payments made by Chiquita in Colombia."

"The company was forced to make such payments to both left- and right-wing organizations to protect the lives of our employees at a time when kidnappings and murders were frequent," he said.

The lawsuit seeks $10 million in punitive and $10 million in compensatory damages for each of the victims. Lawyers said the amount was based on a 2004 agreement in which Libya admitted its role and paid up to $10 million to each of the families of the 270 people killed in the 1988 terrorism bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. (Reporting by Christine Kearney; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech)